PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — In Haiti, classroom basics like notebooks, pens, backpacks and school uniforms are expensive. Those costs pile on top of school fees.
For Marjorie Théodore, 39, a mother of three, the dawn of a new year is daunting.
For the last seven years, she’s been waking up early every morning to get to work at a textile factory in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
She earns a daily wage of 335 Haitian gourdes ($5.46), the legal minimum. She calls it a pittance. She says she can barely feed her kids on that salary, let alone have enough left over to pay for school fees and supplies.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle that we make ends meet,” she says. “We can hardly survive on my monthly wage, and I can’t send my kids to school unless I chalk up debt.”
Across the capital, textile workers like Théodore went on strike last summer, demanding higher wages and hoping for a path out of poverty. But in the months since, little has changed.
“I’m forced to live paycheck to paycheck, and saving money is impossible,” she says.
Across Haiti, kids are went back to school in January, many of whom are joining for the second term after missing the fall semester. But many desks are likely to be empty, and many more students will come with no supplies, teachers say.
“Every year, many children in Haiti drop out of school, and ultimately migrate to the streets and turn to banditry,” says the principal of a local school, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from authorities. School officials are not authorized to speak to the media.
While enrollment numbers are not reported to a central agency, teachers in several districts attribute empty desks to parents’ inability to pay school fees, which range from 250 gourdes ($3.96) in smaller community schools to as much as 750 gourdes ($11.88) at public schools.
Théodore says she managed to pay school fees in the fall, but sent her kids to school without any supplies. Now a new term is upon her.
“I’m worried sick my kids might soon be chased back home, because I can’t afford to pay this term’s school fees,” she says.
Poverty is widespread in Haiti: 59 percent of Haitians live under the national poverty line, earning $2.41 per day, while 24 percent live under the national extreme poverty line of $1.23 per day.
Low wages are commonly blamed for the fact that many students are not enrolled in school or are attending without basic supplies. In Haiti, 13.4 percent of the workforce is unemployed, according to 2017 data from the International Labor Organization. The informal economy accounts for 80 percent of all new jobs.
Employment in the textile industry is common here. Workers in that sector have been protesting, striking and asking for an increase in minimum union wages for years, with no progress. In June 2017, the Police Nationale d’Haïti used tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Port-a-Prince. Protests have not resumed since.
The Conseil Supérieur des Salaires, the council that sets and approves salaries, recommends that workers in textile and other manufacturing industries making products for export be paid a daily minimum wage of 335 gourdes ($5.35), but unions continue to demand 800 gourdes ($12.50).
Gerard Désulmé, 42, has worked for Shodecosa, a local textile factory, for more than 10 years. He says his salary from the factory barely allows him to feed his family, much less send his kids to school with supplies.
“When back-to-school time arrives, I have no choice but to send my children to school without the supplies they need to learn,” he says.
Désulmé says sending his children to school without new shoes and supplies breaks his heart.
“My pay is too low, and there is no money left over after basic food for my family and transportation,” he says. “Go-back-to-school bills are always painful for me and for my kids – it drives us crazy.”
Andremise Vilma, 38, a mother of three, says she dreads back-to-school time. Her husband works for a textile company, which she chose not to name. She says that, after five years with the company, he earns 365 gourdes ($6) a day. These low wages leave the parents perplexed when the time comes to send their three children back to school.
“My husband struggles, being the sole breadwinner for our family,” she says, adding that she is a fruit vendor. “I can earn money by selling fruits like mangoes and oranges. Today, however, we aren’t in the fruit harvesting season.”
She says, “As if that weren’t enough, education costs rise pretty rapidly every year.”
Roberta Salomon, 40, also works at Shodecosa. For the last nine years, she says, she has struggled on the wages that the company provides.
“We have trouble making our dreams come true because of our low pay,” she says.
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.