Haiti's 1989 labor force was estimated at 2.8 million people. The economically active population (those over age ten), however, represented more than half of the country's total 6.1 million population. Forty-two percent of the official work force was female, ranking the country's female participation as one of the highest among developing countries. In rural areas, however, the role of women in production and commerce was apparently much greater than these statistics indicated.
The distribution of the labor force by economic sector from 1950 to 1987 reflected a shift from agriculture to services, with some growth in industry. Despite these changes, agriculture continued to dominate economic activity in the 1980s, employing 66 percent of the labor force; it was followed by services, 24 percent, and industry, 10 percent. Based on these figures, Haiti continued to be the most agrarian, and the least industrial, society in the Western Hemisphere. The country's employment of only 50,000 salaried workers in 1988 was further evidence of the traditional character of the work force.
Statistics on employment and the methodologies used to gather such data varied widely; most unemployment figures were only estimates. In 1987 the United States Department of Labor estimated that Haiti's unemployment rate was 49 percent. Other estimates ranged from 30 to 70 percent. Official unemployment was severe in Port-au-Prince, but comparatively low in rural areas, reflecting urban migration trends, rapid population growth, and the low number of skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Haiti established a labor code in 1961, but revised it in March 1984 to bring legislation more in line with standards set by the International Labour Office (ILO). Conformity with ILO guidelines was a prerequisite for certification under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI--see Appendix B) enacted by the United States Congress in 1983.
Haiti's most fundamental labor law, the minimum wage, was also the most controversial. Low wage rates attracted foreign assembly operations. In 1989 the average minimum wage stood at the equivalent of US$3 a day, with some small variations for different types of assembly work. The minimum wage in the late 1980s was below the 1970 level in real terms, but assembly manufacturers and government officials refused to increase wages because they needed to remain competitive with other Caribbean countries. Labor laws included an array of provisions protecting workers in the areas of overtime, holidays, night-shift work, and sick leave. The government, however, did not universally enforce many of these provisions. The greatest number of workers' complaints came from assembly plants where seasonal layoffs were common.
The organized-labor movement, generally suppressed under the Duvaliers, grew rapidly in the wake of the dynasty's collapse. Three major trade unions dominated organized-labor activity in the 1980s. The newest of these three was the Federation of Union Workers (Féderation des Ouvriers Syndiqués--FOS). Established in 1983 after negotiations over the CBI opened the way for public labor organization, the FOS by 1987 represented forty-four member unions, nineteen of which were registered with the government. Its combined membership in Port-au-Prince and Les Cayes totaled approximately 15,000. Politically moderate, the FOS was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels. The oldest union of influence, the Autonomous Federation of Haitian Workers/Federation of Latin American Workers (Centrale Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens/Centrale Latino-Américaine des Travailleurs--CATH/CLAT), was affiliated with the Latin American trade-union movement and shared its history of political activism. CATH/CLAT consisted of 150 unions, including 63 that were registered with the government. It professed a membership of 7,000. Haiti's third principal union, the CATH, had splintered from CATH/CLAT in 1980; it had managed to take with it forty-four member unions, all recognized by the state. CATH claimed a membership of 5,000. CATH and CATH/CLAT primarily represented assembly workers. The Ministry of Social Affairs registered only unions and not individual members; this practice allowed unions to exaggerate their membership, which probably amounted to fewer than 5,000 by 1987. By the end of the decade, trade unions had made only small organizational inroads among assembly workers; the role of union activity in that sector was the central point of debate in the organized-labor movement.
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