Marie says she had been working for less than a month at a garment factory in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, making clothes for a range of well-known American brands, when the factory’s security chief gave him an ultimatum: have sex with him or get fired.
The 24-year-old says she had no choice. She relies on her work to provide for her four-year-old son after the death of his father and her husband.
“He made a lot of promises. He told me he was going to help me financially with my son’s school and he was also going to help me pay my rent with a promotion, so I did it,” she said. “Afterwards, he told other security guards, and every time I came to the factory, I felt humiliated and belittled. I never had a salary increase and I never received any financial support.
The head of security wasn’t the only man in the factory to notice Marie. In March, her supervisor began sexually harassing her, telling her he masturbated when he thought of her at home. She felt powerless to report him, knowing what had happened to the other women who complained. So to keep her job, she kept silent. But his behavior got worse.
“He told me that if I didn’t agree to have sex with him, he was going to take me out of the line where we assemble clothes,” she says. She refused and in retaliation, every time she went to the bathroom she found piles of clothes added to her workstation, preventing her from completing her work for the day. After weeks of harassment, she finally broke down when he started touching her inappropriately.
“I told him to leave me alone, and because of that I was suspended for three days,” she said. “Even now, he harasses me. He still wants to have sex.
Yet Marie says what is happening to her is common practice in her factory and that other women are also afraid to speak up, afraid of what might happen after telling their story.
In recent years, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has presented itself as a cheap and available destination for American clothing brands looking for low-cost suppliers who can take advantage of the 2006 legislation. which allows duty-free entry for goods manufactured there by American companies.
About 60,000 Haitians work in one of the country’s 41 garment factories, producing garments for more than 60 American companies.
Yet activists say conditions in the factories are akin to prison camps, with non-existent labor rights and where sexual abuse is rampant.
“Workers are not seen as human beings or as in need of rights,” says Yannick Etienne of the workers’ rights organization Batay Ouvriye. “The salary is so low that it puts women in situations where they have to accept [forced] sex to pay their rent.
The government has not raised the minimum wage since 2019, despite inflation over 15%. The country is experiencing catastrophic levels of insecurity and political instability following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year. As a result, food and fuel prices have increased. The unions are fighting for an increase in the minimum daily wage for garment workers from 500 to 1,500 gourdes ($5-15).
Female garment factory workers, The Guardian, confirmed that to get a job – which has become more difficult because so many people are looking for work – women are supposed to have sex with a male manager.
“If you don’t agree to have sex with the manager, your application will be rejected,” says one employee, adding that she works on a line that produces 3,600 T-shirts a day. “You have to oblige or you won’t get a job, and also if you want a promotion, you have to have sex with your supervisor.”
Workers interviewed by the Guardian also said they had to use waste as sanitary pads because they could not afford to buy their own.
Rose-Myrtha Louis, coordinator of the Haitian Renovation Workers Union, said: “We are supposed to have access to towels, but we have to use waste T-shirts [because] we don’t have enough money. It gave us infections. It’s just another way we suffer.
A 2021 report from Better Work Haiti, a labor compliance group supported by the International Labor Organization and the World Bank, found that 80% of workers and their families had to cut back on their meals. It also found that 96% of factories surveyed did not comply with Haiti’s health insurance and social security contribution requirements, putting workers’ lives at risk.
“When you consider the price at which the clothes are sold and the wages we receive, it’s like selling our blood,” says Marie.
Haiti’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry did not respond when asked to comment.
Additional report by André Paultre
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