by Alexis Erkert Depp
If you’re wearing Gap, Calvin Klein or Levi Strauss jeans there’s a chance that I’ve met the worker that made your belt loops or your waistband. If you’ve recently bought Hanes underwear or a Maidenform bra, check the label. Was it made in Haiti? If not, the next pair you buy probably will be.
As part of an effort to help Haiti rebuild its economy after the earthquake, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in May of this year to extend U.S. trade preferences to Haiti through 2020 and nearly triple duty-free quotas for Haitian garment exports to the U.S. Last month the World Bank, Haiti and the U.S. signed an agreement with a South Korean clothing producer, Sae-A to build another free-trade garment assembly factory in Haiti.
Garment assembly plants that employ low-wage laborers in poor countries have been seen as a powerful strategy for economic development for several decades. But who really benefits from these factories?
In August, I visited CODEVI, a free trade zone made up of 6 garment assembly factories in Ounaminthe, in Haiti’s North-East Department on the border with the Dominican Republic. A free trade zone is an area of a country where normal trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas are eliminated and bureaucratic requirements, like minimum wage laws, are lowered in hopes of attracting businesses and foreign investments.
Attracting foreign investment in this way was part of Haiti’s “Poverty Reduction Strategy” plan prior to the earthquake and continues to be a priority now for the Haitian government, the world’s International Financial Institutions, donor countries and, of course, multinational companies looking to capitalize on Haiti’s high unemployment and cheap labor. Note that this list of advocates doesn’t include Haitian factory workers, most of whom work full-time and remain in poverty.
Yannick Etienne is the director of the Haitian workers rights’ organization, Batay Ouvriye and tirelessly advocates for workers’ basic rights. Etienne believes, “It is evident that this model of development with free trade zones as its backbone for creating jobs is a failure. It creates wealth for the foreign investors and local factory owners but more misery for the workers. It’s a model that sacrifices the future of our youth and puts our country in a more dependent framework. That type of international aid won’t bring the change Haitian people envisioned for themselves.”
I spoke to some of the workers from the factories in Ounaminthe during their lunch hour. Thousands of workers were crowded under make-shift tin roofs in the 95 degree heat, eating their main meal of the day, diri Miami (imported rice) and sos pwa (bean sauce).
These workers are barely scraping by. They have a union and have succeeded in demanding a pay raise. They have also succeeded in getting factory owners to hire a Haitian doctor. Nevertheless, they must meet the taxing quota of 4,000 units a week to make 800 gourdes ($20.00 U.S.) a week, which is less than the legal Haitian minimum wage. If they don’t meet weekly quotas, they are paid 600 gourdes ($15.00). They spend more than $10.00 a week just to feed their families.
Higher-paid staff and supervisors are mostly Dominican. The free trade zone employs approximately 6,000 workers, most of whom are younger than 35 years old. 75% of the workforce is women and workers report that sexual harassment is common. Workers are not provided with filtered drinking water and are docked a ¼ of a week’s pay if they miss a single day of work. Workers tell me that they hope for a better future for their children, but that they themselves don’t have any other options.
The economy in and around Ounaminthe is depressed. It is in one of the most fertile agricultural areas of Haiti and yet rice farmers in nearby Ferier cannot sell more than 3,000 tons of rice this year because of Dominican trade barriers on imported rice and an influx of food aid post-earthquake. Meanwhile, factory workers eat “Miami rice” because it’s cheaper.
Support for this kind of economic growth in Haiti is complex. No-one can argue that Haiti doesn’t need more jobs. The production for export factories employ approximately 25,000 Haitians and that number is growing. But, most Haitians would argue that production for export is not a sustainable long-term solution to the country’s lagging economy.
According to Camille Chalmers, Executive director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), “Free trade zones are not a good way to advance economic growth in general because working conditions are poor and this kind of activity has almost no connection to the rest of the country’s economy. It is also unreliable [as a long-term source for employment].”
Although these types of garment factories have provided consumers with increasingly cheap clothes and other goods and have enabled multinational companies to post record profits, as a development model it has repeatedly failed in Haiti and the rest of Latin America to improve the living conditions of the majority of people.
This was abundantly clear to me in my visit to Ounaminthe. Young and able-bodied workers there are working full-time for a wage that will never allow them to break out of the cycle of poverty. The Haitian government doesn’t fully benefit from taxes because CODEVI is a free trade zone. Haitian shipping companies don’t benefit because materials are shipped in and out from the Dominican Republic. The local economy is weakened as it becomes increasingly dependent on the whims of an external market. It’s clear that long-term, the true beneficiaries are not Haitians but rather the companies that own the factories and us, as consumers.
If the Haitian economy is increasingly dependent on cheap labor for growth, it is as much because we want to pay less for our jeans as it is because clothing companies are making a profit. If we truly believe that all human beings have equal rights, then we have a responsibility to support local economic development in Haiti that is determined by and for Haitians. Haitians tell me they want jobs that are sustainable and that will provide them with living wages. On our part, support for this kind of development can begin with ethical and informed consumption.
As I watched the thousands of workers crossing the bridge on their way back to work after their lunch break, I wondered whether I would be willing to pay a higher price for my jeans so that others could live a life of dignity and well-being. So, the question is: Who makes your jeans?
Alexis Erkert Depp coordinates MCC Haiti’s advocacy program.
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