Life, lack and luck on $5 per day

According to Haitian law, all employees must pay their staff a minimum legal wage of $5 per day. This law was passed amidst great debate: Aristide wanted to it to be higher; businesses wanted it to be lower, and Préval eventually compromised on the current rate.

The minimum wage is supposed to provide security from the worst forms of exploitation and cover the most basic living expenses. It is supposed to be low enough for employees to hire more staff than they realistically need, thus keeping chronic and widespread unemployment under some rubric of control. 

Woman on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Woman on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

However, with just 20% of Haitians employed in the formal sector and the infamous dysfunction of the country's judicial system, the minimum wage is often ignored. Women who have been scrambling for a job for months will take half the minimum wage for a months-long trial period as a domestic servant for fear of missing out on a stable job.

The luckier maids who work in the homes of the wealthy and who might get paid a little more than minimum will have their own maids working at home for them. And if a family can't afford to hire a maid but have enough food to feed another mouth, they might take on a reshavek, a female child who will clean and cook and serve in exchange for food and shelter.

These children are supposed to be sent to school, but they often watch on while the other children in their house don their uniforms and head off, never setting foot in a classroom themselves. They are also vulnerable to sexual abuse and eviction if they fall pregnant.

What I find really telling about work conditions in Haiti are not these stories of exploitation, but the ones about allegedly fair pay. If you pay your staff minimum wage you are acting in accordance with Haitian law and standard practice, but what kind of life can you live on $5 per day?

Let's say an average person pays for transport to and from work (25c), breakfast of a bread roll and a coffee (25c), and a standard lunch consisting of rice, beans, chicken, and a coca-cola ($3.10). This already totals $3.60, leaving $1.40 for dinner, rent, utilities, and maintaining a family.

The reality is that if you earn $5 per day you most likely live in a shack you have built yourself from scraps, you walk to work, and you eat at home. This is the only way that you can feed your children and pay for basic necessities. It is little wonder that so many families consent to their children living away from home as reshaveks, and that most Haitian orphanages are two-thirds occupied by children who are not orphans at all.

Compare these figures with items that are commonly enjoyed in wealthy countries or by local business people and expats. Let's say a packet of gum costs 60 cents; that's about an hour's salary on minimum wage. If a cappuccino costs $2.50, you've just spent half a daily wage. A takeaway meal or a cocktail might cost $8, which equals one and a half days' work. Buy a book for $30, and that's a week's salary. A Blackberry phone (quite common among businesspeople and expats in Haiti) equals three and a half months' salary, and a return flight from Washington to Port-au-Prince costs upwards of $899, which equals seven and a half month's salary.

I have heard the minimum waged defended on the grounds of being in the best interest of the maid for her future. The argument went like this: If we pay our maid more than $5 per day, what will become of her when we leave?

Having become accustomed to a higher income, she will struggle to live once more on the minimum wage. In lieu of higher wages, employees might provide the maid with fringe benefits: food, rental assistance, school fees for her children, and second-hand clothes.

For the lucky ones, these gifts can add up to considerable sums of money, but they reinforce patron-client relationships that infantilize the maid by refusing her the ability to choose how she budgets her income.

On the 1st January, 1904, Dessalines declared Haiti independent and abolished slavery. Yet the lack of choices and the survival struggles faced even by those who are fortunate enough to have stable, minimum wage employment, means that a great many Haitians–perhaps the majority–have little of the freedom and human dignity that abolition promised.

Haiti desperately needs to raise the minimum wage and find way to stimulate other sources of employment so that Haitians have greater employment choice and labour power with which to bargain. Foreign businesses will not invest until they feel Haiti is politically stable, but here we meet a classic chicken-and-egg scenario:

Haitians are unlikely to be happy with their government unless they are afforded a reasonable basic living standard. Low wages might be good for business, but they are clearly bad for Haitians and Haiti.