Haitian Government Hires U.S. Lobbying Firm

March 27, 2013

The Haitian government’s Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels (SONAPI) hired a U.S. lobbying firm in February to draft documents and arrange meetings “with Congressional Members and staff and Administration officials to seek change to trade legislation” and to help “implement” worker rights provisions, according to Foreign Agent registration documents. SONAPI is the government entity which owns the newly-opened Caracol industrial park, and is the institution responsible for locating, organizing and managing industrial parks throughout Haiti. Yesterday, a presidential decree named business owner Bernard Schettini as the new head of SONAPI, replacing George Sassine, the ex-president of the Association of Industries of Haiti and the former Executive Director of CTMO-HOPE, the commission in charge of implementing U.S. preferential trade legislation.

Lobbying disclosures show that Sorini, Samet & Associates has been hired at the rate of $5,000 a month to help SONAPI lobby congress. Andrew Samet, the co-founder and principal of the firm, was the Deputy Undersecretary of Labor under President Clinton and later worked for law firm Sandler Travis and Rosenberg which counted the industry group the American Apparel and Footwear Association as a major client (the Association in turn has supported “free trade” deals such as CAFTA and HELP legislation for Haiti). Samet was hired as a lobbyist by Colombia in 2008 when it was pushing for passage of a “free trade” agreement with the U.S. Samet was hired to provide “a strategy on labor issues directed to support favourable consideration” of the FTA with the U.S. and to assist “the government of Colombia in presenting information on labor issues with relevant U.S. stakeholders, including U.S. Congress, the administration, labor advocacy groups, trade unions and the media.” The FTA with Colombia was eventually passed despite the ongoing killing of unionists in the country, which continues to this day. In June 2012 the AFL-CIO issued a report documenting how the Labor Action plan attached to the FTA was failing to prevent labor and human rights violations. For six months of work in 2008, Sorini, Samet & Associates received over $100,000, according to lobbying disclosuredocuments.

The firm has also done previous work for Sassine and the Haitian government during Sassine’s tenure at CTMO-HOPE, earning nearly $400,000 from 20082010 lobbying Congress for the passage of new trade legislation and the implementation of “worker rights provisions.” Industrial parks and garment manufacturing are seen as vital development tools by the Haitian government and many of its international backers. The industry is reliant on trade preferences offered by the United States which started in 2006 with the HOPE act and culminated in the “HELP” act, which was passed soon after the earthquake. According to stakeholders, the HELP legislation, which extended the length of the preferences and increased the amount of textiles that would be subject to benefits, was a key part of bringing in Sae-A Trading, the global manufacturer that recently opened a factory at the Caracol industrial park.

While Sorini, Samet & Associates was previously hired to help implement “worker rights provisions” associated with the HOPE legislation, factories in Haiti are still in violation of a significant number of provisions under the preferential trade legislation. The most recent Better Work Haiti report found that 21 of 22 factories covered in their analysis (Caracol is not covered yet) were non-compliant with minimum wage laws, for example. This past summer, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in their annual compliance report, found that “there was sufficient credible evidence to conclude that three specific producers were non-compliant with one or more of the core labor standards.” This was the first time in four years that the report named specific factories. The violations included non-compliance in: sexual harassment, freedom of association and forced labor.

Just last month, Batay Ouvriye, one of the leading worker rights groups in Haiti issued a statement on the case of Leo Vedél.  Vedél works for a factory in Port-au-Prince named Premium Apparel, which supplies textiles to Gildan, a Canadian clothing company. While the minimum wage in Haiti was recently raised, many factories have not yet raised their wages. Vedél and other workers organized a protest after their requests to be paid the minimum wage were rebuffed. The result, as Batay Ouvriye notes, was that Vedél was beaten by a manager of the park and subsequently fired.

With the Caracol industrial park the centerpiece of the U.S. and international community’s earthquake reconstruction, new focus is being put on labor violations in Haiti’s factories. The U.S., International Labor Organization and other entities have indeed stepped up monitoring of factories; nevertheless, the U.S. has been reluctant to enforce worker rights provisions through the suspension of tariff benefits, opting instead to work with factories and not “scare off jobs” by revoking benefits.

This increased scrutiny, even if it hasn’t resulted in tangible consequences, could be why Sorini, Samet & Associates was hired to “provide support to SONAPI on the continued implementation and compliance with the requirements of the HOPE and HELP legislation, with specific reference to the labor and social compliance obligations of the legislation.” Additionally, the firm will support “officials of SONAPI in meeting with the US Government, US Congress, international organizations, and other interested stakeholders… on the implementation of the legislation and programs related to it.”

Caracol is not yet included in the Better Work monitoring reports but press reports have noted that working conditions are far from ideal, despite a U.S. pledge that “Sae-A would be closely monitored in Haiti because of trade legislation requiring stringent scrutiny through an American-financed inspection program.” One worker recently told Haiti Grassroots Watch, “They yell at us as if we were animals. The food they prepare is bad. There is only warm water to drink. Sometimes I’ve had to work all day without a facemask. Dust fills my nose.” Additionally, while the factory seems to be paying the minimum wage, “most have only 57 gourdes, or US$1.36, in hand after paying for transportation and food,” far from a living wage. Commenting on the pay, another worker told Haiti Grassroots Watch that, “It’s not worth it! The supervisors don’t respect us. They don’t see us as human beings. They hit us with pieces of cloth.”

While a union has taken shape in Caracol, there are still many impediments in factories to organizing. One worker for Global Manufacturers and Contractors recently told Fran Quigley, “‘The people fired for being part of the union make a list this long, “ Jackson says, holding his hands two feet apart. “They find a different reason to let them go, but they are tagged because they are part of the syndicat [union].’”

Sorini, Samet & Associates has a track record of working for governments whose compliance with labor and human rights are questioned, in addition to Colombia. In April, as the government of Bahrain was leading a bloody crackdown on its population, the AFL-CIO submitted a complaint under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement because of the “firing of hundreds of workers and union leaders for participating in strikes and other pro-democracy actions,” according to Justin Elliot of Salon. The Obama administration eventually accepted the submission. In response, the foreign ministry of Bahrain hired Sorini, Samet & Associates at a rate of up to $550 per hour to “support…the engagement of other U.S. stakeholders related to the Submission, including the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations, relevant human rights groups, think tanks and scholars, elements of the U.S. business community, and the media,” among other actions.

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