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Poverty-Wage Assembly Plants as Development Strategy in Haiti: An Interview with the Center for the Promotion of Women Workers

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By Beverly Bell and Tory Field

The U.S. Congress has passed bi-partisan legislation, the Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act, that would extend and expand current trade law with Haiti to increase U.S. imports of Haitian assembled textiles. Passed May 5 and 6 by the House and Senate, respectively, the bill is part of the push by U.S., U.N., other international leaders, and businesses to expand the low-wage assembly industry as the linchpin of Haiti's post-earthquake recovery. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

"This important step responds to the needs of the Haitian people for more tools to lift themselves from poverty, while standing to benefit U.S. consumers,'' said a statement by former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton about the bill.[1]

The benefit of cheap imports for U.S. consumers is one matter, sweatshops as Horatio Alger tool another. To date, the assembly industry in Haiti has not provided poverty alleviation. Most factory workers live direly impoverished lives on the industry minimum wage of 125 gourdes (US$3.09) per day, without the opportunity to raise their pay, learn skills, or advance professionally. The right to unionize is protected in the constitution, but prohibited in practice by the standard management response of firing workers who attempt to form unions. The jobs are insecure, as factories can and do leave without notice to find cheaper labor or other conveniences elsewhere. The Canadian apparel manufacturer Gilden Activewear, for example, decided to quit Haiti within one day of the January 12 earthquake, shifting its Haiti- based operations to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras instead.[2] The factories offer little in the way of health or safety protections. Repetitive motion injuries and failing eyesight are only two of common occupational hazards.

Nor does the assembly industry offer a model of sustainable or sovereign national development. The products made in Haiti's textile factories are not generally made out of Haitian fabric or on Haitian-made machinery. Once assembled, the goods are not consumed in Haiti but are shipped abroad. Haiti's only role in the process is as a stopover in the production process, where cheap labor keeps profit margins high.

The HELP Act expands on the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II), which removes tariffs on certain types and quantities of Haitian-assembled garments into the U.S. HELP would increase the volume of fabrics that are eligible to be imported into the U.S. from Haiti duty-free, from 70 million square meter equivalents to 200 million. It would also extend to 2020 the time frame of the trade relationship.

The U.S is joined by the U.N. in placing sweatshops at the forefront of the post-earthquake rebuilding plan. The textile industry had already been given a leading role, prior to the earthquake, in the U.N.'s development plan for Haiti. The blueprint, written in 2009 by an Oxford University professor, Paul Collier, said, "The garments industry has the scope to provide several hundred thousand jobs to Haitians... It is truly important that this opportunity should be taken."[3]

In a speech at a donor conference on Haiti in April 2009, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of his trip to Haiti with U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton: "We saw children, well-fed by the World Bank and the World Food Program, happily going to school... We visited a textile factory, employing thousands of people that could easily become a prototype for many others...We friends of Haiti must work with the government and the private sector to create jobs and spur economic growth by taking full advantage of openings to international markets."[4]

Other development models exist, based on promoting human capacity in conditions where poverty can truly abate and workers can take greater control over their lives. Haitian social movements have insisted that post-earthquake redevelopment must lead toward a just and equitable economy. For specific proposals, see "Haitian Led Reconstruction Development" and "Raising Up Another Haiti".

The Haitian government is on board with assembly sector as priority, too. Discussion at the recent international donor conference on Haiti in New York on March 31 featured textiles, together with agriculture and tourism, as the basis of its post-earthquake recovery plan. According to the plan, "the Hope II law provides an initial framework for using Haiti's comparative advantages, to benefit from its workforce..."[5]

The proposal submitted by the Haitian government to the March 31 donor conference called for building "regional development centres" for displaced people whom the government hopes to relocate outside of Port-au-Prince. Textile factories will play a critical role there. It claims that the success of these areas will "depend largely on incentives for industrial, commercial, and tourist development."[6] President René Préval has said that an assembly factory will be constructed at the site of the tent camp Corail Cesselesse that the government has created near the town of Croix-des-Bouquets. On March 24, the Minister of Commerce announced the creation of three new free trade zones in and around Port-au-Prince.

Mirlene Joanis, the Director of Communications for the Center for the Promotion of Women Workers, has a different view of development. She spoke from the Center's office, which is surrounded by factories in Port-au-Prince's industrial park.

"What's bizarre is that, while they say they count on the subcontracting [assembly] sector most for the creation of jobs, they can't count on it for development. This industry can't lead to development in Haiti because it's so unstable. That's the mark of this sector: instability. Today people find a job, tomorrow the factory goes somewhere else and they no longer have their jobs.

"Also, it's one of the sectors that's most marginalized, where the state least takes into account the rights of people. Regardless, the factories gets franchise privileges and tax privileges.

"These jobs can be a relief for people who have the illusion that they are working. The minimum wage is so low; it can't resolve anyone's daily problems. And it's not just money; the workers have to have social advantages, such as the right to housing, right to health care, right to hygiene, to take transportation, right to food.... The totality of these social rights would add a lot to the value of minimum wage, but not one of them is respected. They don't even give people potable water. They just buy tanks of untreated water in trucks; people have to buy their own little plastic sacks of water out of their 125 gourdes. I give this example as the most basic of rights, the right to drink water, but they don't even offer that.

"They've been talking about HOPE II as though it's Haiti's salvation. But in a context where people's rights are not respected, it can't relieve the misery of the people.

"If union rights aren't protected, there's no way this sector will improve. People must be able to raise their demands and say, "Respect my rights." That doesn't exist. Even the movement for the minimum wage to be raised to 200 gourdes... people took to the streets to demand it at the last minute, but it ended badly for them. Many lost their job as a result. The state must enforce people's rights so they have a vehicle for making their demands. We have to have a government that considers people's rights.

"Our biggest problem in this sector is that we're in an anarchic situation. The boss has money, he can call the minister. When the worker goes to ask for her rights to be respected, that means nothing. She can organize a union, but the boss will fire her immediately, and then there's no more union.

"Marginalization is one of the biggest complaints in this country. Some groups are considered human beings, others aren't. Some have rights, others don't. As long as that is not resolved, they can come in with all the billions of dollars in reconstruction they want, but without the principle of respect for rights, we're not going anywhere.

"But as for development from this sector, that's got nothing to do with it. It's just going from bad to worse, with no relief of the workers' misery in sight."


[1] Jacqueline Charles and Lesley Clark, "U.S. House passes textile trade bill for Haiti," Miami Herald, May 6, 2010.
[2] Reuters, "Tshirt maker Gildan shifts ops after Haiti quake," January 13, 2010.
[3] Paul Collier, "Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security. A Report for the Secretary-General of the United Nations," January 2009.
[4] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Remarks at High-level Donor Conference on Haiti, Washington, D.C., April 14, 2009, http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/sgspeeches/search_full.asp?statID=464
[5] Ibid.
[6] Government of the Republic of Haiti, "Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti," March 2010.

Tory Field is an organizer, farmer, and Program Associate at Other Worlds.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.