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Urgent Call for Action and Solidarity with Fired Okowa/Codevi Free Trade Zone Workers

#Articles & Analysis
April 2004


The workers in the Okowa/Codevi Free Trade Zone have been struggling to get the IMF-backed Dominican Manufacturing concern Grupo M to respect their basic labor and human rights. In this period of political transition in Haiti, it is crucial that the new government, the manufacturers and the IMF be reminded that the human rights of all Haitians must be respected. Please read the background information about the workers’ struggle below, and consider sending an email or a letter to Grupo M, Levi-Strauss, and the Haitian government expressing your concerns. (We’ve provided a sample letter and email addresses below.)




April 3, 2004

Dear Friends in Solidarity,

The situation in Haïti’s first free trade zone has reached a dramatic point. After over a month of delays for a justice they clearly deserve, the Grupo M Ouanaminthe labor union has once again been set off for another two weeks after having received, in the place of a reintegration letter, a mere invitation to discuss matters “interesting” them.

Let us recall that we have here a precedent – the Drouillard and Laffiteau free zones are already under construction. In this sense, the new Haitian government bears the national responsibility of it’s outcome. After the entirety of the union (that, at the price of courageous efforts, had managed to implant itself in the factory last February) was fired on March first, our meetings with Grupo M confirmed the deliberate and entrenched character of this measure.

Despite over two thousand solidarity letters addressed to Grupo M, its main buyer Levi-Strauss and the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank (IFC), the company continues to maintain this characterized, despotic and illegal measure.

Starting with the announcement of the union’s establishment and that of its dismantling, which followed very closely (Feb. 10th and March 3rd, respectively), several groups implicated themselves fully in the situation. These were, on one hand, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), close to “UNITE” (a US based needle workers union) that, itself, contacted the Washington-based Workers’ Right Consortium (WRC) as well as the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS).

Both of these organizations maintained tight contact with Levi-Strauss, in an effort to demand that it respect the terms of its own social Code of Conduct. This choice to pressure Levi-Strauss was all the more justified as Grupo M is notorious for its disrespect of union rights in the Dominican Republic (where it is the largest employer with over 12,000 workers in its factories) and the IFC had already declared itself openly the Grupo’s “partner”.

Both the WRC and ACILS had participed in the campaign leading to the first collective bargaining convention in Dominican free trade zones, that of the BJ&B, linking relations then with the Fedotrazona union federation, itself in struggle with Grupo M concerning this same subject. Grupo M’s union violations in the neighboring republic are terrifying. Zacarias Gonzales and Genaro Rodriguez, workers at Grupo M in Santiago, Dominican Republic, testified eloquently to the IFCTU (International Free Confederation of Trade Unions) :

“One day they called Francisco (Alvarez), our committee’s general-secretary, to the office. When he returned to his work two men attacked him with a chair and a hammer. They beat him so badly he had to be carried away on a stretcher. He was taken to the doctor and then imprisoned along with the two men. The following day all three of them were released.

“Then, the next day, at nine in the morning, when I was working at my machine, I saw the same two men coming towards me. They were armed with a machete and a metal pipe, and said they were now coming after me because I was number two in the union. I escaped by jumping over three machines and running up to the personnel office on the second floor. Imagine. It isn’t easy to get away when you are in a closed factory.

“I thought I’d be safe in the office; but they called Ali Corona, the second-in-command of Grupo M security. He knocked on the door but I wouldn’t let him in because I thought the guys were still outside. Then I opened the door a little and this massive man smashed his way in. He had a .45 pistol. He lifted me up and hit me on the neck with the pistol. And then he handcuffed me.”

“The company pays for this type of thing, to destroy the unions. There’s a group of 20 people in the free trade zone who are paid to prevent the formation of any unions. Every time they try to form a union, they go and contract these guys and put them inside the factory to start fights with the principal leaders of the committee so that they will lose their rights. They do this every time anyone tries to form a union.”

(IFCTU Report, disclosed by Charles Arthur, of the Haiti Support Group, September 2003).

A similar situation at the Codevi Ouanaminthe factory where already the union complains, above the usual pressures exerted on union representatives, of further heights of repression:

“Some employees like Jean Renaud and Jean Philippe, right after we had notified management by letter of the presence of the union in the company, secretly schemed to forbid certain union committee members to leave the factory, even to use the toilets… Gerard Borgella, we don’t understand his role in the factory. He came to ask us a lot of strange question, even making hardly hidden threats, saying that if something very serious happened to a union member in these moments of political vacuum, who would we address ourselves to, seeing as there are no judges, nor police?”.

How ironic, then that it is this very company, accustomed to violent practices against its workers regularly, that chooses to accuse the new-born Sokowa union… of violence! Whereas the workers were only legitimately asking management a meeting concerning the arbitrary firing of a co-worker. A request that, besides, they would find satisfaction of – but that the next day, on the occasion of the power vacuum created by the Aristide administration’s departure, would serve as a pretext for the massive dismissal of the entire union.

The allegations of violence were, however, disproved by Grupo M’s very associate, World Bank’s IFC, who, viewing a videocassette displayed by the Grupo, could not detect the slightest trace of the violence supposedly proved…

This practice of lies at all levels is indeed usual from Grupo M. Beyond these false allegations of violence, the Batay Ouvriye delegates also unmasked the company’s lying concerning the supposed worker’s will to work on the day of the protest (the company presented a completely lame demonstration) and concerning its supposed lack of knowledge as to the union members list. Finally, their buyer Levi-Strauss categorically refuted the Grupo’s supposed “decrease in orders” that would have justified massive layoffs!

Thus faced with the patent absence of all proof justifying the union’s firing, the company found itself obliged to promise the distribution of letters of reintegration on Monday March 29th, 2004. Only two days later, however, on Wednesday 31st, towards 8:00 pm, after the departure of exhausted solidarity organizations’ representatives, that this distribution of letters began… letters which, nevertheless, did not say a word concerning reintegration!

The much talked-about letters were, in reality, merely invitation to a meeting on April 13th, 2004, “for matters interesting you”!

A dramatic turn of events, for sure — showing very clearly, however, the gall of this company accustomed to having its maneuvers facilitated by the State, its CEO, Fernanddo Capellan, having climbed society’s ranks to become multimillionaire and principal agent of multinational’s domination on this island, in less than twenty years! (Let us recall that the presidents of both countries, practically, set down the free trade zone’s first stone, the project having been very largely contested by organization worried by the national food security, and that Capellan was the president of Adozona, the Dominican Republic’s free trade zone industrialists’ association).

It is fortified by all these “connections” that Grupo M has been able to act thus, as it has always done, in total impunity. The hour is thus for heightened mobilization, and at all levels.

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

Take Action

Batay Ouvriye is asking for all organizations in solidarity, all progressives, all democrats, as well as all nationalists in Haiti sincerely troubled by the daily violations of Haitian territory carried out by the Dominican army, in order to service Grupo M’s property… to all tense our forces to stop the establishment of this hideous precedent, in these times of the opening of free trade zones in Haiti.

· Grupo M


· Levi-Strauss


· The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation


These letters should now also be addressed to the Haitian government, to the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Mr. Pierre CALIXTE, but especially to the Prime Minister, Mr. Gerard LATORTUE:

M. le Ministre des Affaires Sociales et du Travail : Mr. Pierre CALIXTE

#32 rue de l’Enterrement

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

M. le Premier Ministre: M. Gerard LATORTUE

Bureau de la Primature,

Villa d’Accueil Musseau,

Port-au-Prince, Haïti

E-mail :

Sample Letter

Dear ****,

I am writing to you today to express my concern for the pattern of human and labor rights violations in the Grupo M factories in the Okowa/Codevi Free Trade Zone in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Immediate steps should be taken to restore the jobs of the workers who were fired for organizing and participating in a labor union, and to put an end to the harassment and intimidation of union organizers by Grupo M and their hired agents. In light of so many serious reports of ongoing violations of human rights by Grupo M, it is clear that the IFC must review their financing of the project. It is also clear that companies like Levi-Strauss that do business with Grupo M should do everything in their power to demand that their contractors respect the rights of their workers.

Thank you for your concern and for your help in resolving this matter.



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