Magazine article New Internationalist

Bitter Fruit

Magazine article New Internationalist

Bitter Fruit

Article excerpt

Bitter fruit

`SPIKED with oranges from the French West Indies,' runs the slogan on the Grand Marnier poster. It shows a laughing woman reclining on a chaise-longue and clutching a bottle of the luxury cognac-based liqueur.

In 1880 French businessman Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle purchased plantation land in Haiti to grow bitter oranges for use in his family's cognac. The Paris-based Marnier-Lapostolle company still owns a 72-hectare plantation not far from Haiti's second city, Cap-Haitien.

Here, workers have now enlisted the support of international solidarity organizations in their struggle for union rights, better pay and improved conditions. Paid on the basis of how many cases they fill or empty, they have worked nonstop to earn a pittance, even by Haitian standards. Their workplace lacked the most basic toilet and washing facilities. The cutters suffered hand and facial irritation from the citric acid in the juice. Constant exposure to the acid spray caused respiratory and digestive problems. Sick-pay and pensions, although legally due, were not provided.

It was only in 1999, when some of the 350 workers on the plantation formed a union, that any of this became known to a wider public. A few years before, the Haitian workers' organization Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Struggle) had helped form unions in garment-assembly factories in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Now it encouraged the plantation workers to make contact with solidarity organizations. Reseau-Solidarite in France and the Haiti Support Group in Britain duly launched a worldwide publicity campaign.

As the dispute continued, the plantation management fired union leaders and tried to intimidate workers. Solidarity organizations responded by escalating their campaign. Such was the deluge of e-mails arriving at Marnier-Lapostolle offices in Paris that at one point the company threatened the Haiti Support Group with legal action, claiming it was a victim of e-mail `spamming'.

The pressure on Marnier-Lapostelle increased in the summer of 2000 when Yannick Etienne, a Batay Ouvriye organizer, was invited to Britain by the campaigning organization War on Want. British trade unionists sent hundreds more protest letters, and the renewed pressure paid off. On 25 July 2000 union and management agreed a 50-per-cent wage increase and the provision of protective clothing. The difficulty of forcing even such limited gains out of Marnier-Lapostolle contrasted starkly with its earnings of $12 million for 1999-2000. …

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