Working for the Rat
by Murray MacAdam
Report on a spirited North American campaign
to improve working conditions for Disney textile workers in Haiti.
New Internationalist magazine, December 1998
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it s off to work we go.' It's difficult
to imagine that the men and women sewing Disney-branded clothing
in Haiti would be singing along to the familiar tune of Walt Disney's
Take Remi for example. This shy young ~ man works for the
Gilanex company, one ° of four Haitian plants subcontracted
by the giant US-based entertainment empire. He spends his days
operating a sewing machine making 101 Dalmatian T-shirts and other
garments loved by children worldwide.
He is paid according to a piece rate system which means the
more garments he finishes the more he earns. If he meets the quota
set by management he can reach the top rate (around 42 cents an
hour). But even the best sewers only reach quota two or three
times a week.
When Remi was interviewed by US journalist Mary Ann Sabo he
told her he had been working as a machine operator for five years
but still earns just 30 cents an hour. That's the official minimum
wage in Haiti and works out to $2.40 a day or $624 a year.
Every day Remi walks 45 minutes to the factory from his home
in one of Port-au-Prince's worst slums to save money. Even so,
after buying food and water and paying for his daughter's schooling
his paycheque is almost gone.
'Yes, I like my job, but it's not enough to get by on,' Remi
explains. 'It's not enough to eat or send all my children to school.
We're forced to live on the little bit we have. Life is difficult.'
The facts bear him out: much of the food in Haiti is imported
and prices can match those in the West. A simple meal of rice
and beans with tomato paste and bread costs a family $2.89 - more
than the $2.40 that Remi earns on average each day. And that doesn't
include weekly rent of $5.13 for his modest one-room house, clothes
or other necessities. No wonder some workers gulp down their lunch
in a few minutes so they can race back to their sewing machines
to earn more money.
As news of poverty-level wages earned by Disney contract workers
has filtered out to northern countries, outrage has grown- along
with an energetic fight-back campaign. The National Labor Committee(NLC),
a New York City-based human rights advocacy group, is trying to
publicize the conditions of Disney's contract factories to persuade
the company to pay Haitian workers a living wage of at least 60
cents an hour. The NLC has asked Disney company brass to allow
independent monitoring of the factories to make sure conditions
are humane. The company is one of the largest corporations in
the world and has contracts with an estimated 3,000 factories
employing thousands of workers worldwide.
'Why do we have to accept the system as it is?' asks Charles
Kernaghan, one of the key activists behind the NLC campaign. Kernaghan
argues that the cruel treatment of Haitian workers makes a mockery
of the wholesome family values for which Disney is famous.
The campaign has attracted a wide circle of supporters, including
human-rights activists, teachers, students, trade unionists and
church congregations. An annual 'Season of Conscience' campaign,
aimed at promoting shopping with a conscience, has helped alert
Americans to conditions of workers who make clothes and other
novelty items for the giant corporation.
The NLC has also produced Mickey Mouse Goes To Haiti, a video
shot in the Caribbean country which unveils the stark poverty
of Disney contract workers. 'They don't treat us like human beings,'
says one worker, wearing a mask for fear of company reprisals.
'The quota [of clothes to produce] is too much. When I go home
I collapse. I ask God and the international community to speak
up for the Haitian people.' Other workers speak of being trapped
in debt all their lives just to survive. 'The day I get paid,
the children still go to bed hungry,' says one.
These testimonies, combined with footage of the workers' cramped,
inadequate housing, have sparked thousands of US schoolchildren
to write letters of protest to Disney Chief Executive Officer
(CEO) Michael Eisner.
'I grew up with Disney and to see this happening breaks my
heart,' wrote one teenager. 'I don't see how you can walk down
the street without having to hide your face because of guilt.
It's sad that you can't spare 50 more cents to the people that
made you a billionaire.'
Socially-responsible investment funds and church shareholders
have added their support. They've challenged Disney to allow shareholders
to vote on a resolution reviewing Disney's sourcing guidelines
and raised the issue of whether monitoring for sweatshop conditions
and human rights violations is adequate at the factories producing
Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and one of the
poorest in the Americas. The jobless rate hovers near 70 per cent
which means employers have the upper hand in determining wages.
Workers bold enough to try forming unions are routinely demoted,
fired and blacklisted. (One reason for Haiti's 1991 coup was to
prevent former President Aristide from raising wages from the
existing 21 cents an hour to 50 cents an hour.)
Solidarity campaigners are careful to affirm the value of
Disney's contractor plants in Haiti, recognizing that the 2,000
workers desperately need to keep their jobs. Nonetheless, when
workers at the LV Myles Disney contractor-factory in Haiti recently
tried to organize a union, 150 were summarily fired. In 1997,
the NLC rallied against a threat by another contractor, HH Cutler,
to pull out of Haiti in favour of even cheaper wages elsewhere.
It was no bluff. The contractor set up a maquila factory in Acuna
along the US-Mexican border to sew Hercules, Lion King and 101
Dalmatians children's clothing. On investigating, the NLC found
forced overtime, lack of clean drinking water and limited bathroom
Getting Disney to respond concretely has also been a battle.
At first the company denied employing anyone in Haiti, arguing
that it merely 'contracts' work out to other employers and therefore
had no responsibility for wages and working conditions. Later,
management claimed contractors were paying 60 cents to 90 cents
an hour, despite documented proof that found workers were earning
wages as little as 12 cents an hour.
Eventually, the company reluctantly agreed to send representatives
to check conditions and wages at its contractor plants. However,
on the key points-wage hikes and independent monitoring-the giant
media conglomerate refused to budge. NLC visitors to Haiti discovered
that workers had never heard of the 'Walt Disney Corporate Code
of Conduct' that allegedly guarantees basic rights to workers.
It's clear that the multi-billion dollar firm could easily
afford to pay workers in Haiti, China and elsewhere a living wage.
Disney CEO Eisner received over $185 million in pay and stock
options in 1996. It would take a Haitian worker sewing Disney
garments 156 years to earn what Eisner was paid in an hour. The
NLC found that for every pair of Pocahontas pajamas sold in the
US for $11.97, a Disney worker received just 7 cents. Disney contractors
in Haiti have admitted that their profit margins are 12 to 17
per cent, triple the typical rate for US manufacturers.
The plight of Disney's Haitian workers showcases the power
of footloose capital in a world hungry for work. As Western multinationals
roam the world in search of hefty profits they gravitate towards
the very cheapest labour.
'The global economy pits workers in the US and other industrial
countries against Haitian workers in a bitter race to the bottom,'
notes Kernaghan. 'It's a matter of who will accept the lowest
wages and the most miserable working conditions.'
Nonetheless, Kernaghan believes that consumer pressure can
move the whole system forward, as it did with US clothing retailer
Gap. A vigorous and noisy campaign finally forced Gap to become
the first company to open its contractors' plants to independent
The Disney campaign has been just as noisy but the company
has chosen to close its ears. Kernaghan acknowledges that it's
an uphill battle but claims a victory of sorts in that huge companies
like Nike and Gap are at least being forced to respond to the
growing anti-sweatshop campaign.
'We're well on the way to building a social movement with
the strength to hold corporations accountable for their human
rights practices,' he says. 'And to pay a living wage.'
Murray MacAdam is a community worker and freelance writer
based in Toronto.
Secrets and Lies