Sweatshops Over Homes in Haiti

On September 20, Haitian prime minister Jean-Marc Bellerive, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the World Bank announced their partnership with a South Korean garment firm to establish an industrial park that will create 10,000 garment assembly jobs in Haiti. Without a doubt, earthquake-ravaged Haiti needs jobs, mainly to provide the country’s 1.3 million homeless with the means necessary to rebuild their destroyed homes. However, rather than solve the housing problem, the factories will depend on the vast pool of low-wage labor present in the homeless camps. Haiti's meager minimum wage of $3.09 per day will be barely enough to cover the worker's food expenses.

Kevin Edmonds

On September 20, Haitian prime minister Jean-Marc Bellerive, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation announced their partnership with the South Korean garment firm Sae-A Trading Company to establish an industrial park that will create 10,000 garment assembly jobs in Haiti. Without a doubt,
earthquake-ravaged Haiti needs jobs, mainly to provide the country’s 1.3 million homeless with the means necessary to rebuild their destroyed homes.

While little progress has been made on Haiti’s immense housing needs since the January 12 earthquake, Clinton assured the investing public that factory development was moving full steam ahead. These 10,000 jobs, she assured critics “are not just any jobs. These are good jobs with fair pay that adhere to international labor standards, . . . Haiti is open for business again."

Meanwhile, Haiti’s homeless are living in the 1,300 internal displacement camps around the country’s capital Port-au-Prince. The camps are a patchwork of tents and tarps, where, according to reports, “the distribution of aid [has been] totally lacking, incomplete or seemingly arbitrary.” In the camps there are systemic human rights abuses; women, children and the elderly lack security, people cannot find enough to eat, and members of a potential work force have few opportunities to support their families. It will be people from these camps who will fill the new job posts in the garment factories.

They will be people like factory worker Jordanie Pinquie Rebeca who, as reported by the Associated Press, “with a day’s pay [at a factory]… can buy a cupful of rice and transport via group taxi, and pay down debt on her now destroyed apartment.” Rebeca earns Haiti’s $3.09 daily minimum wage working for JoS. A. Bank Clothiers making suits that retail for $550 in the United States.

Workers for the new plants will come from similar conditions as Rebeca, as the industrial parks will rely on Haiti’s homeless who are desperate for work. Rather than solving the housing problem, they will be taking advantage of it. The massive reserve of unemployed workers is unlikely to create pressure to increase the minimum wage in the country, but rather will set the stage for the construction of the same poor housing that was so easily destroyed by the January earthquake.

These low-wage jobs will provide hardly enough for the employees to purchase food for their families, despite the levelling of food prices after the quake. The fraction of money that remains goes towards construction of their homes such as the flimsy corrugated zinc sheets that will serve as a roof. Haitian economist Pierre-Marie Boisson told the Toronto Star that “Haitians, at least those who can find work, spend just over 50% of their earnings on food . . . For this industry to be politically viable it needs to pay a higher wage . . . After the costs of education, Haitians have little to spare for housing.”

Plans have already been made to build a large, low-wage industrial complex directly next to the displaced persons camp at Corail Cesselesse located just north of Port-au-Prince, with a population of 6,000 – where the construction of permanent homes has yet to take place. The camp will be the primary source of workers for these factories. When pressed about the lack of progress made in the rebuilding efforts, including inabilities to provide shelter, Secretary of State Clinton said “Those who expect progress immediately are unrealistic and doing a disservice to the many people who are working so hard.”

Bill Clinton, UN Special Envoy to Haiti, has been equally optimistic about Haiti’s cheap labor prospects, especially since the passing of the Haitian Economic Lift Program (HELP) in May. The bill would increase the amount of Haitian assembled goods that could be imported into the United States duty free. “This important step,” Clinton said, “responds to the needs of the Haitian people for more tools to lift themselves from poverty, while standing to benefit U.S. consumers.”

The New York Times also supports this type of factory development model in Haiti. An editorial published shortly after the earthquake said that “. . . Haiti has considerable economic advantages, like low labor costs and a law that grants its goods preferential access to the United States market. Extending that law and encouraging investments in industries like garment-making and tourism could swiftly create tens of thousands of jobs.”

In another opinion piece published in the New York Times Nicholas Kristof expressed similar thoughts, stating that “the best strategy for Haiti:[is] building garment factories. That idea (sweatshops!) may sound horrific to Americans. But it’s a strategy that has worked for other countries, such as Bangladesh, and Haitians in the slums would tell you that their most fervent wish is for jobs. A few dozen major shirt factories could be transformational for Haiti.” Bangladesh, however, has similar connections between abject poverty, natural disasters, and the numerous yearly deaths as Haiti.

The rush towards sweatshops is a long-standing plan for Haiti. In 2009, the United Nations developed and promoted a plan to expand the Haitian economy through the widespread expansion of Special Economic Zones which would capitalize on low wages. The report, authored by Oxford economist Paul Collier, states that “Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labor market, Haiti has labor costs that are fully competitive with China.” In addition, Haiti is the only true low-cost nation in the region, offering labor rates half that of the Dominican Republic and one twentieth that of the United States.

In May 2009, the Haitian Parliament passed legislation to raise the daily minimum wage from 70 gourdes ($1.72) to 200 gourdes ($5) a day. However, under severe pressure from business organizations citing the “dangers” of accepting the legislation, Haitian president René Préval declined to sign on and instead offered a compromise of 125 gourdes ($3.09) for factory workers and 200 gourdes for everyone else. Business owners argued that the wage increase would threaten the newly enacted Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement act (HOPE II) trade agreement with the United States.

HOPE II was created in 2008 and is promoted by Bill Clinton as an “enlightened” vehicle to help develop the Haitian economy by removing tariffs on garments assembled in Haiti. It has since been expanded in light of the earthquake, and the U.S. government agreed to accept triple the amount of Haitian assembled clothing duty free to 200 million square meters until 2020. Under this legislation, profits for U.S. companies have increased, as it is easier for them to assemble and export products from Haiti without any taxes or duties.

For Haitian labor rights groups this type of industrial development model is anything but the answer for Haiti. Beverly Bell and Yannick Etienne of Batay Ouvriyè (Worker's Struggle), are “adamant that a sweatshop-based development model cannot advance either the country or its workers. First, the investments are unstable, and companies can and do pull out at a moment's notice. Second, the work does not offer a living wage, benefits, possibilities for advancement, or skills training. Third, with the primary products and the machinery imported and the finished products exported, assembly does not stimulate Haiti's economy.”

As factory development moves ahead with all cylinders working, housing remains the critical unresolved issue for the country. Leonard Joseph, a local environmental coordinator living in the camps told NPR: "We've heard that the government has received millions of dollars, and aid groups have received millions of dollars for Haiti . . . But when we compare it to the conditions we are living in here, it doesn't make sense. We haven't benefited at all."


Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA Research Associate.

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