Haiti lawmakers OK minimum wage hike after clashes

By JONATHAN M. KATZ, The Associated Press
8:00 p.m. August 4, 2009

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Lawmakers voted to more than double Haiti's minimum wage Tuesday night after long hours of debate and clashes between police and protesters, who complained they can't feed and shelter their families on the current pay of about $1.75 a day.

The plan adopted fell short of the $5 wage demanded by the demonstrators, although it would more than double the minimum pay to about $3.75 a day.

The raise also would include workers at factories producing clothes for export, an idea that President Rene Preval opposed. After refusing to publish into law a plan passed by Parliament in May to nearly triple the minimum wage, Preval proposed giving the garment factory workers an increase to about $3.

Given the lateness of Parliament's 55-6 vote to adopt the new raise, there was no immediate reaction from the president or from the protesters.
Earlier in the day, police fired tear gas at some 2,000 protesters who gathered outside Parliament to demand a big increase in the minimum wage. As legislators prepared to meet on the issue, some of the protesters threw rocks at police and began ripping down flags of U.N. member countries near the building.

Most of the crowd dispersed before the Parliament session began, with no arrests and only two reported injuries, including a cameraman who was hit in the head with a rock.

Many of the protesters were minimum-wage factory workers, such as Banel Jeune, a 29-year-old father who sews sleeves on shirts.

"Seventy gourdes, that doesn't do anything for me," he said, referring to his current minimum wage. "I can't feed my kids, and I can't send them to school."

The issue has been inflammatory in Haiti, which is the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. But despite the heated debate and occasional violence, few people would be affected by the wage increase.

Most of Haiti's 9 million Haitians who are employed work on small farms or sell basic goods on the street. Only some 250,000 people have jobs covered by the minimum salary law, said lawmaker Steven Benoit, who sponsored the bill.

Still, some development experts argue that a pay increase would hurt plans for fighting Haiti's widespread unemployment by creating more jobs in the factories that produce clothing for export to the United States.

With new trade advantages that allow for duty-free exports of clothing to the U.S., such factories could provide "several hundred thousand jobs to Haitians ... over a period of just a few years," according to a report submitted to the U.N. in January.

But it said that plan requires costs be kept down.

The report had been requested by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and prepared by Oxford University professor Paul Collier. It is now being promoted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the new U.N. envoy for Haiti.

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