Bergan, Renée & Mark Schuller
2009 Poto Mitan: Haitian Women Pillars of the Global Economy. Watertown, Massachusetts: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD color, 50 mins
Reviewed 26 Oct 2009 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Women employees - Haiti - Social conditions
Women employees - Haiti - Economic conditions
Globalization - Social aspects - Haiti
Globalization - Economic aspects - Haiti Haiti - Social conditions - 1971-
Haiti - Economic conditions - 1971-
ABSTRACT: Five dramatic profiles of poor working women in Haiti illustrate the problems caused by neoliberalism, global capital, and weak states and how women, who bear the brunt of these burdens, can organize for change.
In the early 21st century, almost everyone feels that something is wrong with the world’s economic system. Not only has the global recession of 2008-9 wiped out jobs and savings, but prior to that crisis there were food riots and reports of increasing poverty.
Despite the widespread concerns and anxieties—which have finally touched the United States too, which often seems insulated from the insecurities of the global economy—there is little agreement about the causes of the problems or about the solutions. Many people appear to believe that the current downturn is a short-term anomaly in an otherwise healthy system. Others see it as the inevitable outcome of unsound, unsustainable, and fundamentally unjust policies and structures.
Poto Mitan is a powerful, verging on scathing commentary on the contemporary state of the global economy, particularly its effects on the poor country of Haiti and even more particularly on the women of Haiti. The film consists of five profiles of specific women, each highlighting somewhat different but related and ultimately similar circumstances. The case of Marie-Jeanne, for instance, focuses primarily on the nature of factory work for impoverished Haitian women, who suffer from awful pay and awful working conditions. The minimum wage in Haiti (and the film was made in 2009) is reported as the equivalent of $1.75 per day—appalling but nearly double the rate before vigorous action was undertaken to improve it. As Marie-Jeanne laments, to the bosses and elites "we are not human", and low-wage low-skill labor is all too easy to replace, offering no security. The abominable living conditions of minimum wage workers are also depicted, including the problem of affording education for their children in a society where the promises of public education are not kept. The International Monetary Fund and the practices of neoliberalism are explicitly blamed.
The portrait of Solange stresses the violence in Haitian society. In the slum, where most of Haiti’s poor reside and where unemployment hovers around 60%, "misery and poverty facilitate violence" and "inequality increases violence". UN soldiers are shown patrolling the streets, giving the impression that Haiti is a virtual war zone. Political instability contributes to the suffering: the coup against Aristide cost the island many jobs. International capitalism contributes as well: the 2005 lifting of WTO quotas against China unleashed a flood of cheap labor and cheap goods, bolstering China’s economy but decimating Haiti’s. Yet, one observer in the video asserts that subcontracting cheap labor in Haiti (or in China, for that matter) is not real development.
Frisline’s case introduces the crisis of prices. The poor in Haiti struggle particularly exquisitely because commodity prices have risen so rapidly in the last two decades; minimum-wage laborers could afford to eat in the 1970s, but conditions have deteriorated dramatically since then. The viewer would do well to consider Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping (1992), which describes a similar situation in northeastern Brazil, where modern capitalist practices in sugarcane production deprived the working poor (often, once again, women) of the last of their informal security nets. One sure result is violence: hunger, Frisline notes, breeds theft and kidnapping (see also the feature film City of God about Brazilian favelas for a stark depiction of the same phenomenon). In 2008, food prices led to literal riots, and what little development money flows into Haiti "goes to the bigwigs" and does not help the lower classes at all. Additionally, the state does not provide much in the way of social services in Haiti (one of the principles, sadly, of neoliberalism or "structural adjustment"), and prices and wages are often fixed to serve the interests of international capital and local elites rather than those of the masses. Frisline achieves a certain amount of success by scrimping to start her own small home-based grocery story, a good case of the possibilities of what has been called 'micro-finance' or 'micro-credit'. (See also the video Small Fortunes on the global micro-credit movement.)
The final two profiles, of Hélène and Therese, pound away at the theme of neoliberalism. Policies adopted in the 1980s concerning agricultural goods like rice dumped low-cost produce in Haiti and destroyed the local farming economy, driving thousands of rural workers off the land, into cities (largely slums), and thus into poverty. The film recounts the story of the Haiti pig industry, which was wiped out by an American demand that all of the island’s pigs be slaughtered to curtail a swine-related disease. According to the video, 800,000 agricultural jobs have disappeared since the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s, forcing most of those people into overcrowded and underdeveloped cities like Port-au-Prince, which house ten times the population they were intended for and therefore do not house them very well. As already mentioned, standards of living have declined from the 1970s when even minimum-wage workers could afford food to today, when jobs are more scarce and food more expensive. Critics of the Haitian system complain that the state is too weak to serve its people, but ironically (or not so ironically) a weak state is one formal goal of neoliberalism, which is (also ironically or not) a kind of triumph of conservatism.
The film ends with some hopeful mentions of ground-level organization, including a campaign against violence (robbery and rape being two types of violence particularly plaguing poor women) and efforts to enhance women’s rights (including labor unions, micro-credit efforts, and local self-development initiatives.) The video, which more than amply documents the 'feminization of poverty' throughout the piece, finally names it near the end and argues that the same women who are the center of global labor and global poverty are also the center of their societies—the poto mitan or center pole that holds up culture. A society or world system that does not respect and support its center pole is essentially inviting collapse, which takes us all down with it, as the world recession of 2008-9 only too clearly illustrates.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and lower-division college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of sex/gender, anthropology of globalization/neoliberalism, and Caribbean studies, as well as for public audiences.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 1992 Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.