General strike in Guadeloupe against high cost of living

Following calls by an organisation representing trade unions, political parties and cultural associations in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, a general strike was launched in late January 2009. The strike was held in protest against the high cost of living and included demands for a €200 wage increase. Employer organisations responded by proposing an exemption from employer contributions; however, the prime minister refused this request.

Following a call by the organisation known as the Collective Against Outrageous Exploitation (Collectif contre l’exploitation outrancière/Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon, LKP), a general strike protesting against the high cost of living was held on 20 January 2009 in Guadeloupe – one of the four French overseas departments (départements d’outre-mer, DOM) located in the Caribbean. On the eve of the strike, the island’s 115 petrol stations were shut down, with their managers demanding a freeze on plans for any new stations. The combined initiative brought economic activity in Guadeloupe to a halt.

LKP demands

LKP is a collective of representatives from 48 organisations – including the majority of the island’s trade unions (apart from the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC)), political parties and cultural associations.

LKP put forward a set of demands comprising 146 points, most notably requesting:

  • an immediate increase of at least €200 for low wages, pensions and minimum social benefits;
  • the setting of a minimum wage specifically for Guadeloupe based on the real cost of living;
  • a significant reduction in taxes and margins on staple products and transport;
  • a reduction in the price of fuel, water and communications, in addition to greater transparency in price setting.

LKP reiterated that the cost of living in Guadeloupe is in fact about 30% higher than that in mainland France. In particular, the price of food has increased sharply over recent months. At present, some 70,000 people live below the poverty threshold in Guadeloupe and the unemployment rate is very high, reaching 27% in 2007. As a result, large-scale protests were organised on 24, 29 and 30 January, involving between 20,000 and 65,000 people.

Tough negotiations between stakeholders

Faced with widespread protests and work stoppages, employer organisations in Guadeloupe and the Pointe-à-Pitre Chamber of Commerce (Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Pointe-à-Pitre, CCI de Pointe-à-Pitre) joined forces in the Movement of Guadeloupian Business People (Mouvement des entrepreneurs de la Guadeloupe, MEG). A list of 15 resolutions was drawn up by MEG, including certain demands made of the state. In light of the wage rise totalling €108 million, MEG requested exemption from the payment of employer contributions.

Negotiations got underway at the end of January between LKP representatives, the state, elected representatives and the employers. On 31 January, the presidents of the Guadeloupe departmental assembly and the regional assembly proposed the following measures:

  • various tax reductions;
  • a drop in the price of school meals;
  • an increase in regional grants for students;
  • a payment of €150 to the most disadvantaged residents made by the region (covering 128,000 people) and by the department (covering 61,000 people).

Visit by overseas secretary of state

At the beginning of February, France’s Secretary of State for Overseas Territories, Yves Jégo, visited Guadeloupe. Mr Jégo made several announcements, including a pledge by retailers to cut the price of 100 products, and the rolling out in 2009 of the active solidarity income, originally planned for 2011. An agreement was also reached with petrol station managers regarding the price of petrol and fuel.

A pre-agreement was concluded on 8 February, subject to the approval of the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, on the employer contribution exemptions. Solutions were also found for the 131 other issues put forward for discussion. Thus, an end to the conflict seemed to be in sight.

However, in mid February, the unexpected departure of Mr Jégo for Paris was perceived as a unilateral breaking off of negotiations. This was followed by the prime minister’s refusal to reduce employer contributions – a decision which fuelled tensions even further. As a result, a number of violent protests broke out. Fortunately, Mr Jégo’s return and the intercession of mediators resulted in the resumption of negotiations. The secretary of state assigned responsibility for reaching an agreement on the wage increase to the social partners.

Agreement reached

Finally, a ‘memorandum of understanding’ was signed on 4 March by LKP and state representatives. The memorandum lists progress made on LKP’s 146 demands. The attached wage agreement, which provides for an immediate increase in low wages of €200, was only signed by the minority employer organisations. The Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) and seven other organisations refused to reopen negotiations.

As of 7 March, the Ministry of the Economy, Industry and Employment (Ministère de l’économie, de l’industrie et de l’emploi) announced that the agreement would be extended to cover all companies.

Commentary

Trade union membership is particularly high in Guadeloupe, particularly in the General Union of Guadeloupe workers (Union générale des travailleurs de Guadeloupe, UGTG). The latter is the island’s largest trade union, winning 51% of the votes cast at the industrial tribunal elections last December (FR0901019I), and has played a key role in the setting up of LKP.

The government’s refusal to reduce employer contributions is partly due to concerns that such a move could set a precedent for the other three overseas departments – Martinique, Guyane and La Réunion. On the Reunion Island, which is located in the Indian Ocean, a day of action was held in protest against the high cost of living on 5 March. Since 5 February, The island of Martinique, also situated in the Caribbean, has been on a general strike since 5 February. However, four parties involved in negotiations to settle the dispute reached an agreement on 11 March.

In the current context, the debate that has been underway in the Senate since 10 March on the draft overseas programme framework law seems premature to say the least.

Annie Jolivet, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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