One of the highlights of my stints in Haiti is pay day, which comes midway through each trip. When I heard that Saturday was a half work day I figured that it would be a lighter day than the others, but in the construction shanty, it is the busiest day of the week. All morning Fedo, the resident bookkeeper, and Gama go over the lists of who worked each day during the past week. This can include up to 100 men, each of whom worked different days at different tasks at different rates of pay.
Around noon a well-scrubbed young man in a Lacoste shirt shows up and hands Gama bundles of bills. He is from the bank, though the only ‘banks’ I have ever seen in Haiti are the brightly painted tin sheds that sell Lotto tickets along the side of the road with the word ‘bank’ in yellow block letters. There is no retail banking in Grand Goave, no check books, no credit cards, no direct deposit. I heard there is an ATM machine in Jacmel, forty miles away, but that may be a rumor.
Haitian money (the goude, 40 to the US dollar) is nicely designed with pastel pictures of Haitian heroes and large font numerals designating 100, 250, 500, and 1000. It is the same shape as the dollar, but since wallets are not common, it does not maintain the rectilinear organization we give money. It is just as likely to be crumbled into a ball as to lie flat.
The work day ends at two on Saturday, though today is a concrete pour day, which means the workers stay until they are done. Since the mixer broke for two hours today, the pour went slow. It is 4:30 by the time Gama and Fedo sit at the table in the work shack with their spreadsheet of names and days worked and piles of bills several inches high. Since every business in Grand Goave is doing the same thing at this same time, I wonder if the Lacoste man has any cash left in his bank.
A line of workers queues outside the shanty. The first one in is Clebon, the head carpenter. “Ah, Clebon, you get to go first” I shake his hand and smile. “Clebon lives in Port-au-Prince,” Gama explains, “he has a long drive home.” “Moto?” I ask if he has a motorcycle, I know no workers own cars. “No,” he laughs at me, “Tap-tap.” Tap-taps are the crowded, slow, group taxies that snake the highways of Haiti. It will cost Clebon a couple of dollars and about three hours to get home.
Fedo explains to Clebon his pay for the week. Clebon agrees to the amount and signs next to his name. Gama hands him a fistful of bills. Next. The crew leaders go first, sign and leave. The line works its way down the ranks. The signatures get shaky, then they turn into symbols. Each worker has found a way to make a mark with a pen, however foreign it feels in his hand.
And so it goes, one worker after another. Felix, the old man who tends the water for the concrete mixer, receives 1000 goudes for four concrete pours. That is the basic laborer rate, $6.25 per day. If you are very strong, say a fellow along the bucket brigade hauling concrete up the stairs, you make a premium, while the workers with both backbreaking endurance and some skill, the guys who wade in the concrete in hip boots and shovel all day long, your daily rate is even more. Still, no laborer tops ten dollars a day. There is a big shift up for managers. Clebon and Fanes, the overall superintendent, make closer to twenty dollars per day.
But what does that buy them? No one owns a car, a few workers have motorcycles, most arrive on foot or by tap-tap before 6:00 am, which means they rise, dress, and travel in complete darkness. Clebon will be lucky to get home to Port au Prince by seven o’clock, and has to rise at three to return the next day. Most of the men have a piece of property and a house, even if it is only a shack. They don’t have extensive wardrobes – many laborers wear the exact same clothes every day. Still, a day’s wages will feed a person for several days. Gama says a man can eat well in Haiti for $1.50 a day, but if you want to eat something more than rice and beans with onion gravy and a garnish of pork, say a barbeque chicken, that might run half a day’s wages.
The men wait patiently to receive their pay. The last leaves at 6:00 pm, as dusk turns to night. After all the pay is distributed, Gama remains; he has hours of accounting to do. Fedo and Francky, buddies since childhood, will stay with him. Haitians are almost never alone. I am finished my work for the day and so I walk down the hill to MoHI where I can catch a ride to the mission house.
Along the main road I pass Leon, the rebar crew chief and one of my favorites. He must live nearby; he is already clean and changed, wearing a pair of tan slacks and a snappy black linen shirt. A very attractive woman is by his side. He gives me a big smile and a firm handshake. He is obviously happy, out with his girl.
Pay day in Haiti may seem like small change to us, but pay day is the same everywhere in the world. The work week is done; I have money burning a hole in my pocket, so let’s go out on the town.