The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges, but at the same time, many opportunities have emerged. Such is the case of close collaboration between The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MAST) and Better Work Haiti, who came together during the pandemic to maintain decent working conditions in the apparel sector. Since 2020, Better Work Haiti has undertaken joint activities in factories with the labor inspectors of MAST, allowing for the joint identification of priority training areas. Since the beginning of the year, 60 inspectors have been trained on chemical and hazardous products management as well as forced labor and human trafficking after these topics had been flagged as priorities for compliance with international labour standards and export requirements.
MAST’s labor inspectors were introduced to chemical and hazardous management for the first time in 2017 through a partnership between Better Work and the ILO-MAST project. The training provided them with the essential knowledge to include a set of compliance checkpoints related to chemical and hazardous substances into their factory inspection visit checklist. Yet, because of turnover, many of the current team of inspectors were new to the topic, while veteran inspectors believed re-training would improve consistency within the unit.
In March 2022, eight inspectors (including two women) attended a training module on chemical and hazardous product management offered by Better Work Haiti. This training provided tools and good practices on how to effectively handle chemicals, in order for the inspectors to conduct their Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) tours with more foundational knowledge. MAST inspector Innocent Dimanche points to key elements of this training that will help them conduct qualitative inspections on chemical and hazardous products.
“Understanding the products’ compatibilities and the chemical risk diagram are some of the key elements learned during this training that allow me [and other inspectors] to determine if factories correctly manage those products and provide adequate equipment to exposed workers,” said Dimanche.
Following the initial training, labor inspectors reported that during the last five years, they observed some improvement in chemical product storage in factories. Yet, there is a need for factories to additionally ensure proper labelling of products and provide adequate training to workers on safe use of those products to avoid incidents or related health hazards. Better Work Haiti’s 23rd Biannual Compliance Report indicates high non-compliance in chemicals and hazardous substances – 96 per cent of apparel factories were found to have at least one violation in this area. Most of the issues related to the lack of safety datasheets, accurate inventory and labelling of chemicals and hazardous products, and six (out of 27 factories) were found to be non-compliant with the proper storage of chemicals and hazardous substances, a potentially dangerous issue.
Dimanche, who has encountered these issues of non-compliance at work, notes that “A critical responsibility for factories is to ensure an effective and complete separation between areas using chemical products and the production floor to avoid workers to being exposed to those products.” They also affirmed that this training helped them understand the need for protective equipment when conducting inspection visits in particular factories areas where they may be exposed to chemicals and hazardous products.
Expanding trainings to address forced labour
With improving overall quality in mind, 28 labor inspectors and officials from MAST’s northeast regional office attended a second round of in-person training on forced labor and human trafficking. ILO experts in international labour law and normative standards from the ILO Country Office for Central America and the Director of the National Committee for the Fight against Human Trafficking (CNLTP), joined to present this session at CODEVI Industrial Park following the Labor Roundtable Conference. The CNLTP is an interministerial and sectoral body attached to MAST, whose mission is to coordinate activities to combat forced labor and trafficking, prevent and combat trafficking in all its forms and guarantee the protection of victims.
“Labour intensive sectors are often subject to forms of human trafficking or abusive labor pressure practices referred to as forced labor.” This issue also affects Haiti, said Ibreus André, the Director of the CNLTP.
According to the US Embassy in Haiti’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Government of Haiti does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included prosecuting and convicting more traffickers, updating the penal code, forming regional anti-trafficking subcommittees and continuing to implement a national identification card program. Based on this progress, Haiti was downgraded to the US Department of Labor’s (USDOL) Tier 2 Watch List.
The CNLTP collaborates with the ILO through Better Work Haiti to strengthen the knowledge of labor inspectors to support its efforts to eliminate all signs of forced labor and labor exploitation (linked to human trafficking), particularly in companies in the apparel sector, which contains the largest number of formal jobs.
“Haiti has ratified ILO Convention 29 on forced labour. As of July 1, 2021, the CNLTP published its official Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) guidelines for the identification and support of victims of human trafficking in Haiti. This document follows on from the drafting of the national strategy and plan to combat human trafficking 2017-2022. The annual reports on human trafficking submitted by the CNLTP to the United States Department of State facilitate the evaluation of the country’s efforts in the fight against this problem.” – Ibreus André
According to Better Work Haiti data, apparel factories detected four instances of forced labor over the last five years, and these pertained to the coercion of workers to terminate their employment without reasonable notice and leave their jobs when their contracts expire as well as their freedom to come and go from the dormitories and/or the industrial park or zone in which the factory is located. According to Dimanche, enterprises tend to put more effort into addressing issues related to international labor standard compliance, which is seen as mandatory and a determinant of eligibility for trade benefits, versus national labour laws, which are not directly tied to export access.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Hyppolithe, a labour inspector who participated in both trainings, shares her views on the potential application of knowledge acquired during this training “I believe that the knowledge acquired and the legal references available to us from this training will allow us to be able to identify most of the potential situations deemed to be forced labor or human trafficking in our inspection and investigations. As a follow-up, we have already started discussions within the inspectorate of the Western regional office to propose recommendations to our superior in order to introduce points directly related to these themes in our inspection sheets,” said Hyppolithe.
Many inspectors shared the idea that the labor inspectorate plays a significant role in supporting efforts against forced labor and human trafficking, despite limitations.
“Our work as inspectors is a bit limited to inspection and investigation but that allows us to identify cases of forced labor or human trafficking in the workplace. Beyond that, I believe we can help raise awareness and prevent these challenges and make recommendations for stronger or more suitable regulations.” Hyppolithe
The quality of inspection visits may have a significant impact on enterprises’ compliance, so strengthening the skills of the MAST inspectorate is crucial. Better Work Haiti continues to develop new collaborations that aim to ensure the sustainability of the Better Work’s approach to support a safe workplace, better working conditions and improved compliance. In these two areas of work, which have the potential for damage and danger, it is marked progress for the labor inspectorate to be prepared.