Spotlight interview with Paul Loulou Chery (CTH-Haiti)

"We have reached rock bottom. The word solidity must be put into practice"

Ten months after the terrible earthquake that devastated Haiti, the population now finds itself battling with a cholera epidemic and extreme weather. As the "trade union brigades" to fight cholera get down to work (1), Paul Loulou Chery, general secretary of the Haitian workers’ confederation CTH, laments the slowness of the reconstruction programmes in the country and calls on the international trade union movement to help Haitian workers to build a future.

Given the recent floods and the resulting cholera epidemic, do Haitians see nature as an inevitable force of destruction?

We have entered the hurricane season. We already saw devastating floods in October. Although these are natural disasters, one cannot deny the responsibility held by the political classes that have never been able to prevent the risks, be it now or eight months ago, or during previous disasters. Nature often wreaks havoc in our country. Everybody knows it, yet not a single politician has ever given any consideration to the environment or the long term.

A trade unionist was recently killed during a teacher’s demonstration. Could it be that that political violence, man-made devastation, is on the rise?

On 11 October, a member of the UNNOH teaching union died following a police botch-up that had taken place three days earlier during a public rally organised by a coalition of organisations waging an awareness-raising campaign on universal schooling for Haiti’s children. A maths teacher was struck down by a projectile shot by a policewoman. She should be tried and sentenced. But part of me also thinks that it was an unfortunate accident, as it took place in a context of relative peace. The current climate cannot be compared with the violent unrest that raged during the transition period between 2004 and 2006. No matter how much criticism we may level against our rulers, at least we are no longer faced with endless murders and kidnappings. Security has been restored on the whole.

How do you view the impending elections?

The climate is clearly not favourable. All the talk is about the legislative and presidential elections on 28 November, even though we are not prepared and don’t have the kind of consensus culture that is needed to ensure a serene political debate. In the aftermath of the disaster, we should all have stuck together and focused on rebuilding the country and its structures, which needed time. But we are faced with this constitutional void, so elections have to be held.

Let’s go back to the disaster that struck on 12 January. What is the current situation?

It is dramatic. Aside from the 300,000 dead, let’s not forget the millions who lost everything and are still living in temporary shelters. I spent six months living in a tent with my family. The mobilisation has been international. I was at the Donors Conference in New York in March. So many promises were made. Yet only 30% of the aid pledged by the donor countries (5 billion dollars over two years) has materialized so far. That is nothing in relation to the gravity of the situation. The Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti (ICRH), co-chaired by former US president Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive has been set up. We have a trade unionist representing us and other sectors of civil society are also represented, but it is badly run. We do not receive sufficient feedback regarding concrete reconstruction efforts. Are they waiting for the elections? A new team? It’s hard to tell. But the reality is that there’s a humanitarian emergency, millions of our compatriots living as refugees, sanitary problems, epidemics, the shortage of water and food supplies.

How are you progressing with the application of the trade union movement roadmap for reconstruction and development in Haiti?

We had met in Santo Domingo under the auspices of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) and the ITUC. The international trade union movement was very supportive, helping us, for example, to structure a list of demands. The ITUC’s full-time representative here in Haiti doing as much as he can. He goes to meet the workers, the trade unions, and helps us to present our demands within the framework of this roadmap.

And what about the aid from the trade union movement in the neighbouring country, Dominican Republic?

It was magnificent. Within just days our colleagues from the autonomous trade union confederation CASC and the socio-cultural movement of Haitian workers MOSCHTA came to our aid. They were very supportive and very efficient, bringing us foodstuffs and medication. It was very moving and very symbolic when one is aware of our shared history and destiny: two States on the same island, condemned to get on. Today, although the flow of aid from our neighbours has slowed, a strong bond remains between the CTH and CASC. We will be seeing each other again at the end of the year for around four days to discuss the direction to give the trade union movement with regard to the reconstruction efforts; we will also talk about leadership. The CASC is, for example, involved in a project of the Belgian NGO Solidarité Mondiale (linked to the Belgian Confederation of Christian Trade Unions) aimed at training 120 Haitian builders, be it in Haiti or Dominican Republic. There are other programmes too.

You insist a great deal on training.

Everything remains to be done; or to be redone. An IPEC project providing training for 100 young people aged between 14 and 18 in manual trades such as masonry, joinery and cooking was recently launched at our own training centre, INAFOS. Other organisations aside from ours are also involved in this project. But the funding period is only six months. It is a small project but it is essential in terms of reconstruction and if nothing is done, it will come to an end in December, which would be a tragedy, so great is the deficit in terms of training and know-how in this country.

How can the notion of decent work be incorporated in the context of so much ruin?

At our level, rather than decent work, we first have to talk about work full stop, so as not to create alarm. We have to use caution when broaching this issue, which we set great store by. Every meeting we have with the leaders and employers is put to good use. We are trying to introduce the concept of decent work little by little. We slip in our demands at each meeting. It’s hard to believe but the minimum wage, despite being extremely low, (200 gourdes, i.e. the equivalent of five US dollars) is not even applied in all companies. Prior to the earthquake, formal employment was already restricted to a very small segment of the active population: 250,000 people out of a total of five million! Today, the figure is much smaller. Everyone is living more than ever before off the informal economy. Most negotiations, often for pilfering amounts, take place in the streets, not in the banks. The earthquake has also exacerbated the problem of child domestic labour. There are more restaveks (2) than some months ago. What better way is there for people living on the streets to keep control of their children? If they find someone who can "help" them, they won’t waver for long. And in the end, these children are exploited. A new international Convention on domestic work will be an invaluable tool for exerting pressure in this respect.

What message would you like to send out to the international trade union movement?

If our friends from around the world are still thinking of us, and I’m sure they are, they should know that this is a crucial moment, that our needs are still immense and there are reliable relays in the country to identify the aid needed and how to distribute it. The word solidarity must be put into practice. We already live in the poorest country in the American hemisphere, but since 12 January we have reached rock bottom. False promises have been made by donors. We have great expectations, however, when it comes to the international trade union movement, in terms of concrete and sensible projects.

Interview by Jacky Delorme

(1) To fight the cholera epidemic that is already estimated to have killed over 1000 people in seven regions of the country, the trade unions on the ground have set up rapid response teams. Aside from these "workers against cholera brigades" the ITUC, which has a permanent office in Haiti to ensure a continual presence on the ground, has also announced plans to hold an international trade union conference in Port-au-Prince, in January 2011, in collaboration with its regional organisation for the Americas, TUCA. For more information: Haiti: Trade Union Brigades Fighting the Cholera Epidemic

(2) Restavek, a Creole word derived from the French "reste avec" (stay with) used to describe a child in domestic servitude.