DELMAS, Haiti – When the Covid-19 pandemic first swept across Haiti in March 2020, the government’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MAST) had to put activities on hold. It created a dilemma: with factories trying to manage how to operate and keep workers employed safely, MAST also needed to prioritize their own workforce’s safety. For Claudine Joseph, a labor inspector with MAST, the challenge came with the return to work:
“When the government authorized factories to reopen, I had to conduct special inspections to check how factories were complying with the Covid-19 prevention rules,” Joseph said. “However, I felt concerned about going to factories to protect myself and my family.”
Joseph was hesitant until she was provided adequate PPE to conduct factory visits and return to work safely. However, Better Work Haiti, which works closely with MAST and usually oversees 35 garment-producing factories employing over 50,000 workers, was still not permitted in factories. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, Better Work Haiti’s enterprise advisors, who routinely conduct factory visits to assess and advise on working conditions, were also not able to visit factories themselves.
“The pandemic put us in a situation where we as an industry had to come together and be creative,” said Claudine Francois, who leads the Better Work Haiti program. “We had already been moving in the direction of working more closely at the factory level with public labor inspectors. The new reality pushed us to put our plans into action even faster.”
The demand for help was urgent. Claudine Joseph describes receiving “many visits from employers and workers seeking advice and guidance on how to behave and address issues related to Covid-19.” As was the case for many MAST inspectors, Joseph did not feel able to offer adequate responses in the strange new context. “In some cases, I could not give all answers due to lack of medical expertise and legal concerns in regards to Covid-19.” Fortunately, MAST and Better Work collaborated to develop clear guidance to answer these pressing questions.
Working together, Better Work Haiti and MAST have developed a process whereby public labor inspectors visit the factories, guided remotely by Better Work staff. As restrictions are lifting slightly, Better Work is also visiting the factories to conduct coaching and quality assurance. All reports go through Better Work Haiti to be checked for accuracy.
The inspectors also benefited from the revised training on Hygiene and Prevention against COVID-19 and Labor Law, adapted by BWH to cover sick leave issues, temporary suspension, and personal leave among other issues. It was vital to cover these topics with the MAST inspectors to ensure the teams aligned in their methodologies and interpretation of the different decrees published by Haiti’s government during the pandemic.
Dimanche Innocent, another MAST labor inspector, expressed that the preparation came at a crucial time.
“As partners, it is very important for MAST and Better Work to align on several points, especially Covid-19- related criteria, as we assess factories,” he says. “Better Work developed a whole kit on Covid-19 that includes guidance for factories, assessment questions, techniques and equipment. It is easier and better to work with Better Work documentation for a stronger inspections.”
This new way of working is part of the overall sustainability roadmap for Better Work globally. Over time, and working with other departments across the ILO, the programme aims to effectively build national labor inspectors’ capacity to monitor working conditions at the enterprise level. This approach will allow for more scalable and sustainable change across the industry. It begins to raise the bar across entire sectors, rather than only the factories enrolled in Better Work. This progression would enable inspectors to take a proven Better Work protocol and adopt it in their work long term.
“Better Work requests much more of the factories than MAST, and I think the information collected can help us to have a bigger and better understanding of the factories overall,” says Innocent.
Better Work country programmes are at different phases of this collaborative journey. Better Work Jordan, for instance, has signed an agreement with the Ministry of Labour (MoL) to enhance their enforcement capacity. The programme has seconded several government inspectors into Better Work to learn alongside programme staff and runs training sessions, coaching, and joint field visits with inspectors. As of last year, a member of the Better Work Jordan staff also sits directly in the Ministry of Labour to help guide their development.
“In Jordan, we have a strong and collaborative approach with the Ministry of Labor,” said Tareq Abu Qaoud, the head of Better Work Jordan. “Labour inspectors are joining enterprise advisors in all assessment visits, even writing some assessment reports, and implementing the model developed during Covid-19 pandemic.”
In other countries, such as Cambodia, the programme is also increasingly partnering with the Labor Inspectorate on joint visits.
Better Work Haiti is well on the path of implementing a similar approach to other programmes like the ones in Jordan and Cambodia. Creating a collaboration and synchronicity with MAST will allow a reach and longevity beyond the limitations of Better Work’s presence.
“In Haiti, we have been trying to build this capacity. Now, we are working together with them. This had always been the plan, but COVID sped it up,” said Francois.
Inspector Claudine Joseph, for one, looks forward to the ongoing partnership. “I found the experience of assessing factories with Better Work during the pandemic to be a learning opportunity. The Better Work assessors look into every detail and take the time to explain the why and how. I hope to find other occasions to learn their techniques and apply them in our inspections.”