First: recently, Paul Collier (author of The Bottom Billion) wrote an article for The Globe suggesting that what Haiti needs is more sweatshops. ("Industrial zones"... y'know, the ones that pay no taxes, 'cause they're in special "free trade zones"). For my part, I agree more with Mohammad Yunis who asserts that low-wage factory jobs do not provide a way out of poverty.
Second, this tidbit from the CIA Factbook:
US economic engagement under the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act, passed in December 2006, has boosted apparel exports and investment by providing tariff-free access to the US. HOPE II, passed in October 2008, has further improved the export environment for the apparel sector by extending preferences to 2018; the apparel sector accounts for two-thirds of Haitian exports and nearly one-tenth of GDP. Remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equaling nearly a quarter of GDP and more than twice the earnings from exports.
I'm one of those people who believes that much of the last two decades of international policy toward Haiti has been primarily concerned with access to cheap labour, especially in the apparel sector. Anyone who does any reading about the 2004 coup, for example, will encounter these names: André Apaid, Apaid's company, Alpha Industries, and Canada's Gildan Activewear.
Gildan (which is currently running a series of billboard ads in Toronto) is the largest producer of blank T-shirts, was criticized in Honduras for unjustly firing workers with union sympathies, and laid off all its Quebec workers to move operations to the Caribbean and Latin America.
This section of Canada in Haiti seems topical:
Montreal-based Gildan Activewear announced plans to move part of its controversial Honduran El Progresso plant to Haiti to escape accountability for workers' rights violations. With a massive warehouse in North Carolina and as owner of 40 percent of the U.S. T-shirt market, Gildan would benefit from the [HOPE] act were it implemented. Gildan employs up to 5,000 people in Port-au-Prince's assembly sector, including work subcontracted to Andy Apaid, the leader of the [Group of 184, an opposition coalition in Haiti].
So what's Gildan's response to the Haitian earthquake?
TORONTO, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Gildan Activewear a Canadian T-shirt maker, said on Wednesday it would move some of its manufacturing operations to Central America after a powerful earthquake in Haiti damaged one of its subcontractor's factories.
The Montreal-based company, which manufactures T-shirts, socks and underwear, said one of three factories that sews fabric for Gildan in the small Caribbean country, suffered substantial damage during Tuesday's quake.
Gildan said it would shift production of the shirts, destined for the U.S. screenprint market to the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. The company said its U.S. retail customers were not affected.
Thanks, Gildan. Nice to know you're in it for the long haul.
During a recent visit to Haiti, I met a woman who's been on the assembly line for four years. Her name is Paulette Dorval, and she works 10 hours a day, six days a week. She has four children, but she's had to send three of them away to live with her mother. Every two weeks, she gets a pay envelope with 840 Haitian gourdes—that’s 22 dollars and 63 cents Canadian. That's 18 cents an hour. On the day I met her, Paulette said she wasn't having any dinner. She'd spent the last few pennies on the bus ride home from work.
Koreans own the factory she works in, but nationality has nothing to do with the exploitation of garment workers in Haiti. The French owner of a t-shirt factory in Port au Prince threatened to shut his factory down, and lay off hundreds of workers, if the minimum wage was raised to $5 a day. He meant it. And an executive of a Montreal company, Gildan Activewear, that buys a lot of its leisure wear in Haiti justified the country’s pay rates by saying you have to look at the question of Haiti's minimum wage in an "holistic" way. That’s the word she used. Holistic.
Gildan says everything costs more in Haiti: electricity, transportation, fuel, building expenses. There's also the cost of insecurity and rampant corruption. The argument is that if manufacturers had to pay their workers a better wage, a living wage, say $5 a day, they simply couldn't compete. In other words, it comes down to a choice between profitability, and Paulette Dorval eating dinner every day. There is no middle ground.
I saw a really good panel on ALBA the other night. Great speakers. Great conversation afterward. My sense is that a number of Latin American activists have really become engaged because of the Honduran coup.
Some interesting elements of discussion:
Brazil: We talked a bit about the ambivalent role of Brazil. In Haiti, most of MINUSTAH is made up of Brazilian and Jordanian troops, and the mission has been headed by Brazilian generals. In Honduras, the Brazilian embassy has been housing Zelaya. Are they pro-popular movement, or what? There was some talk about Brazil jockeying for a permanent place on the UN security council, and how it's now one of the G20, which seems to be affecting the character of their economic and foreign policy.
Bolivarianism: The moderator made a good point that the legacy of Bolivar -- the dream of a united Latin America is very much alive and Bolivar's inspiration cannot be underscored. But Haiti's influence on Bolivar should not be forgotten. It was the Haitian leader Pétion, who gave Bolivar sanctuary and soldiers (and a printing press! Essential for a revolutionary) on the condition that Bolivar abolish slavery. I know that Venezuela has never forgotten Haiti's role, there.
TeleSUR: We had a few people at the meeting who had been in Honduras at the time of the coup. One fellow talked about the media blackout and cutting of the power. He said that in the immediate post-coup days, the only source available for information about what was happening was TeleSUR. TeleSUR was explicitly created as part of the ALBA plan.
The Honduras Coup: Two thoughts about the coup came up. One was a discussion about the extent to which the Honduras coup was motivated by the fact that Zelaya signed on to ALBA. Honduras and Haiti both mark out the lowest point for wages in the Western hemisphere, and some of the same corporate names come up in both cases: Gildan Activewear, Goldcorp. But also, there was talk about the differences between the Honduras and Haitian coups. The western countries made half-hearted objections to the coup in Honduras, partially because Honduras has historically been a "good ally" of the US and the developed countries. It's historically had good governance, and so forth. Haiti, on the other hand, is a "failed state". The official story there is that the government is incompetent and it only made sense for Canada and the US to applaud the removal of Aristide. The moderator pointed out that the label of "failed state" is not unrelated to the race demographics of Haiti.
One element that seems similar in both cases is the degree to which the media is providing little more than superficial coverage of the events.
Now that Zelaya is back in Honduras, the US has become much more openly anti-Zelaya. Someone suggested that there's an international "peace keeping" mission being planned. It looks likely that Canada, Panama and Colombia will comprise the force (I've not been able to find a confirmation of that suggestion, however).
Subsidies: One of the speakers raised the point about how intimately tied we are to Latin America. If we go to the store and buy a bunch of bananas for a coupl'a dollars -- that low price is directly related to the poor wages in Latin America. The speaker talked about a wage struggle that was going on in one country. The issue was an attempt to raise wages to 8 dollars a day. In Toronto, we've had a campaign for $10 an hour minimum wage. Why shouldn't Latin American countries be entitled to the same kind of minimum wages? (I think a lot of people on the left are wishy-washy about this, in ways I disagree with. "Oh, you have to think about the regional buying power of a dollar." Shut up.)
Now, the speaker was very clear about what that kind of wage shift will mean for countries like ours. If food or T-shirts or other goods suddenly become much more expensive, we won't be able to consume the same way that we have historically, and that's gonna have profound effects on our society. Another speaker chimed in, here, and said that basically, the low wages in Latin America were a form of subsidy that those countries gave to us, so that we could enjoy a high standard of living. I thought that was a nice way of articulating the idea.
All in all, an excellent panel.