Magazine article New Internationalist

Working for the Rat: A Spirited North American Campaign to Improve Working Conditions for Disney Textile Workers in Haiti

Magazine article New Internationalist

Working for the Rat: A Spirited North American Campaign to Improve Working Conditions for Disney Textile Workers in Haiti

Article excerpt

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 'Seven Dwarfs'. 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 Portau-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 fightback 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. …

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