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Guest Editorial: Haiti, Fusing Commerce & Social Progress

The recent tragedies in Bangladeshi factories have heightened global attention onto the conditions of international garment workers. While well-meaning, the attention hasn’t always resulted in objective analysis of the situation.

One recent example ran in the New York Times on October 15thwhich put the Haitian garment industry under a microscope and failed to see the big picture. And the big picture is this: Haiti has directly linked its burgeoning garment industry through free trade legislation to social responsibility and workers’ rights.

Since 2006, the United States has entered into various free trade agreements with Haiti that, among other things, aim at developing a market-based economy, increasing employment, combatting corruption and protecting internationally recognized human and workers’ rights.

In May 2008, when the U.S. Congress extended the previous HOPE bill retitled as HOPE II, the act required social and administrative provisions for labor reform aligned with International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. After 16 months, Haiti had to establish an Office of Labor Relations (Technical Assistance Improvement and Compliance Needs Assessment and Remediation program – TAICNAR), and appoint a Labor Ombudsman.

TAICNAR received benefit of $10 million over five years to establish a labor program to ensure that Haiti meets the core standards created by ILO.   TAICNAR is implemented by Better Work, which is a partnership between the ILO and International Finance Corporation (IFC).

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Haiti, as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is suffering from a staggering unemployment rate of 65 percent, according to Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.  The garment industry can and should change this situation.

Better Work, stated in their October 16, 2013 report that the total export revenues from the textile and garment industry in Haiti accounted for 91 percent of the country’s national export earnings and 9 percent of GDP. The apparel industry is among the largest employers within Haiti, creating jobs for more than 30,000 people.

“Haiti is well-positioned to create tens of thousands of jobs and harness the opportunity it presents for our growing apparel industry,” Lamothe said in response to criticism of Haiti’s garment industry. “Our nation has a deep history in the apparel sector, which at one time employed more than 100,000 workers and today employs a third of that. Indeed, Haiti is poised to meet international demand, be a good partner to buyers and importantly, improve the livelihoods of our people. In other words, Haiti is open for business.”

According to Lamothe, over the past three years, Haiti has accomplished a historic feat of tripling the minimum wage despite a global recession, growing employment and an earthquake that devastated Haiti’s economic and social center. “During this period, we added 6,000 net new apparel jobs and increased apparel exports by 30 percent,” he said.

Bangladesh is an example where free trade in apparel changed national employment.  Between 1996-2005 Bangladesh’s unemployment rate was between 35-40%.  After Canadian and European apparel free trade was granted in 2001, the last few years has seen Bangladeshi unemployment rate hover between 2-5% which is better than any developed nation on