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Haiti's Yannick Etienne at the European Social Forum

Charles Arthur | 10.11.2004 10:31 | European Social Forum | Workers' Movements

Yannick Etienne, a prominent activist in the Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Fight) organisation in Haiti, participated in the European Social Forum in October 2004.

Haitian workers' activist, Yannick Etienne, was among the more than 20,000 people from nearly 70 countries who participated in the European Social Forum (ESF) in London on 15-17 October. This, the third meeting of Europe's non-governmental organisations, environmentalists, peace campaigners and left wing parties, followed gatherings in previous years in Florence and Paris. Participants heard over 2,500 speakers at over 500 meetings during the three-day event.

Etienne is a prominent activist in the Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Fight) organisation in Haiti, and was in the UK as a guest of the Haiti Support Group and the anti-sweatshop campaigning organisation, No Sweat. During the ESF, she spoke at four meetings.

At one seminar entitled 'The US militarisation of Latin America and the Caribbean' on Friday, 15th October, Etienne shared a platform with speakers from Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela. She reminded the audience that Haiti was at present experiencing its third military occupation in less than 90 years. She said US troops intervened, not to keep the peace, but to secure US business and strategic interests. Referring to Haiti's position as a stepping stone for the trafficking of cocaine between South and North America, Etienne said that the US, far from trying to stop the trade, was actually heavily involved in it. The current United Nations force in Haiti is led by Brazilian and Argentinean troops, and some commentators have suggested that these countries' involvement is a progressive development. Etienne disagreed, denouncing them for occupying a sovereign country, and for doing the US's work for it.

Later the same day, she participated in a fiery debate on the struggle for real democracy in Haiti. Responding to Lavalas Family Party supporters who said that progressives should condemn the February 2004 coup and call for the re-instatement of President Aristide, Etienne insisted that Batay Ouvriye's analysis of the situation at the time remained valid. She recalled the organisation's December 2003 slogan describing the Lavalas Family Party and the local bourgeoisie's Group of 184 as "two rotten buttocks in the same torn pair of trousers." She said that of course the US role in building up the Group of 184 and former Army opposition was reprehensible, but stated that those who claimed Aristide was pro-worker did not know what they were talking about. As an example, she described the violent attack on organised workers at the Guacimal orange plantation in May 2002 which was led by local Lavalas Family officials, and which was supported by the government spokesperson, Mario Dupuy. Two members of Batay Ouvriye were killed during the attack. "Imagine", she said, "You are fighting for your rights, and the Minister of Communications goes on the radio and calls you a 'terrorist'!"

On Saturday, 16th October, Yannick Etienne participated in two discussions about union organising. At the No Sweat seminar, "Workers’ Rights, Human Rights - Taking on Poverty and Sweatshops," she joined a platform of trade unionists from Britain, Belgium and France. While some speakers suggested that tripartite consultations and legislation monitored by the International Labour Organisation were the appropriate mechanisms for countering the abuse of workers, others stressed the merits of direct action by workers themselves, backed by international solidarity.

Rein de Tremmerie representing the Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens de Belgique (CSC) explained how a well-known company selling women's underwear in her country was pressurised into improving the very bad situation of workers producing its products in Hungary and Indonesia. The company had a good reputation and hence became supportive of the call not to spoil its good image.

For her part, Etienne outlined the year-long struggle for union rights at the new free trade zone in north-east Haiti where a Dominican company uses Haitian labour to assemble Levi's jeans. In June, over 370 workers - members of the newly-formed Sokowa union - were sacked. An international solidarity campaign is continuing to press the Levi Strauss company and the World Bank, which funds the free trade zone, to have the workers re-instated. Etienne said, "We will continue to fight until all those workers are back at work, and we will negotiate with the management so that they agree to recognise workers' rights and union rights." She added, "We want to count on your support to win this victory."

At a workshop at the Trade Union Congress centre in Bloomsbury in central London, the Battersea and Wandsworth trade union council (BWTUC) vowed to continue to back the Sokowa union in what is expected to be a long campaign to unionise the free trade zone workers. Up to 20,000 workers are expected to be employed in the Codevi FTZ over the years ahead. Julia Brandreth of the BWTUC said that Yannick Etienne and the Batay Ouvriye-affliliated unions in Haiti were an inspiration to rank and file workers in the UK.

On Sunday 17th October, Etienne joined tens of thousands at a demonstration and rally to denounce the war against Iraq. The rally gained emotional strength from the intervention of Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon - a soldier in the British army - was killed in an ambush near Basra earlier this year. Rose Gentle was cheered loudly when she asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to come to Trafalgar Square to meet the demonstrators. Veteran Labour Party left-winger, Tony Benn, said at the rally: "The Iraqi war is an act of criminal aggression which the US launched and Britain supported - it's illegal and immoral, and it will not succeed."

Commenting on a hectic three days in London, Etienne said, "As regards the European Social Forum, it's been very interesting to see so many young people involved in important issues and struggles."

On the other hand, Etienne was critical of the lack of involvement on the part of local working class people, and felt that European perspectives and issues were not really discussed. "As a person involved in social struggles, I didn't learn much about what is going on in Europe." She also noted the contradiction that at the same time as solidarity activists were campaigning against giant multinationals and the exploitation of workers, vendors at the ESF were selling Coca Cola drinks, and t-shirts manufactured by the anti-union Gildan textile company.

On the eve of her return to Haiti, Yannick Etienne remarked, "I enjoyed the trip and I think it was very worthwhile. I feel very good to have been greeted by dynamic people in the solidarity campaign - the BWTUC, No Sweat, and the Haiti Support Group. "

Charles Arthur
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