Volunteering in Haiti is not easy. Certainly, it’s not for the faint hearted.
Shortly after the earthquake, I was in the countryside near Port-Au-Prince, trying to arrange help for an orphanage. At one point during the visit, I was lectured by a caring individual. He said, “You may understand poverty, but you don’t have a clue about EXTREME poverty. You see, there’s a big difference between having nothing, and having less than nothing”.
Perhaps you have seen the recent articles about potential exploitive labor problems at apparel assembly facilities in Haiti. These questions need to be asked, but at the end of the day, they mainly point out issues that often evolve in developing countries as these countries adjust to the realities of enforceable laws. Certainly, there are ways to seek proper understanding and resolution to the wage disparities. However, headline grabbing from a country on oxygen is not likely the best way to get fair treatment for factory workers. While the resolution to the questions will soon be at hand, we remain concerned that many of the brands, retailers and potential investors could easily get scared away. Haiti is not an easy place to set up shop, and we do want people to come in, not run out.
They say in Haiti that one working person feeds ten. In the late 1980’s, there were close to 100,000 people employed in the assembly trades. If that amount of people were working today, it would equate to feeding about 10 percent of the Haitian population. Jobs grant honor and dignity to Haitians, who only want to get some assistance, so they can help themselves.
The reason the three US legislative trade agreements were named Hope, Hope and Help was because that’s exactly what they were supposed to bring to Haiti. After the infamous Haiti trade embargo in 1994, the assembly business was almost killed. When the embargo was lifted, light industry barely returned. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, the apparel factories employed less than 23,000 people versus 100,000 before. Today the number is close to 30,000 and there are approximately 24 factories on the island.
The honest truth about free trade with Haiti is that the assembly industry will only prosper if worker skills can be improved, and higher value items can be manufactured. The amount of labor involved in a simple tee shirt, and the duty charged on the finished product, just isn’t enough to overcome the rising cost of the raw material, in a world where worker productivity rates are on the rise due to advanced techniques of modern manufacturing. If the productivity of a worker in Haiti remains low, and wages continue to rise, and the cost of raw material continues to increase, then the duty free aspect will be of little consequence if the industry pursues a course of manufacturing only low value product. Duty free alone will not solve Haiti’s assembly problems. Workers must be trained and skills must be improved.
I first started to manufacture in Haiti in 1984. I found the people to be kind and hard working. We taught skills and eventually moved away from tee shirts to fashion products. At one time, I even made the famous Lacoste Alligator shirt in Port-Au-Prince. Haitians were eager to learn. They can do it — one just needs patience and to have a willingness to make it happen.
One day I walked out of the factory and there was an adorable 6 year old Haitian child in a white shirt with a black tie, and khaki shorts. I asked who he was, and the answer was “factory child”. I asked what that meant, and the answer was interesting. His mom used to work in the factory, but she died. The workers gave money to send him to a good school. They want him to have a better life then they have.
Haiti is a country of great beauty and tragedy……..all coupled into one.
Let’s continue to help Haiti get back on track.
Rick Helfenbein is President of TellaS Ltd (Luen Thai USA) and Vice Chairman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He was Co-Chair of HARRT (Haiti – AAFA Recovery & Reconstruction Team) and is a strong advocate of a robust US Trade Agenda. He often lectures on the subject of supply chain and international trade at prestigious universities around the country. He participates annually in the Consortium for Operational Excellence in Retailing at Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business.