Does Haiti need more sweatshops?

Republican Senator Marco Rubio promoted his policy ideas for Haiti in a recent op-ed. He called out the Biden Administration for a failure to fully engage what Rubio calls a looming crisis of political collapse and unauthorized migration. Rubio’s arguments are similar to other recent opinion pieces in The Washington Post and elsewhere, calling on the administration to “do more!” 

What does doing more mean? It means more guns and more investment, the dual pillars of US foriegn policy everywhere in the world. The Rubio version goes like this: Biden should be…

…following the advice that US Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, and I gave to the government to strengthen Haiti’s national police to fight criminal gangs. It means being open to another UN peacekeeping mission. It means expanding the Inter-American Development Bank’s investments in Haitian infrastructure. And it means building closer economic ties between our country and Haiti, as my Haitian Economic Development Program Extension Act would do by guaranteeing jobs and trade benefits for Haiti’s textile industry.

One of the most problematic components of what is becoming a bipartisan consensus on Haiti’s future is the idea to create a better investment environment for the companies that sew garments for US clothing brands in Haiti. Low taxes, no export fees, and cheap labor. 

This point is raised not to criticize Rubio, at least no more than anybody else who advances sweatshops as a critical element in the solution to a crisis. Remember that former President Clinton promoted a massive industrial park for sweatshops as the largest USAID project in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Farmers living in the zone were displaced, the housing created for workers was substandard, and environmental concerns have largely been set aside. But the park is now open, paying exploitation-level wages to struggling families and communities. As a result, Haiti’s stabilization is further from reality than ever.

If you go to your closet, or to your chest of drawers, there is probably something in there made in Haiti. Which is to say, in the US we all benefit from such “stabilization” plans for Haiti, as well as such plans for other countries of the Global South, which do not ultimately provide stability, but do provide less expensive garments.

What does this development strategy translate to in reality? Abuse.

The garment industry is rife with human rights violations that go beyond the miserable wages paid. The industry is structured to maximize productivity in a process that can not be mechanized. Sewing a tee-shirt still requires someone to actually do it. Fancy sewing machines only get you so far. Maximizing productivity frequently means putting considerable pressure on workers, such as limiting bathroom breaks, punishing striking workers, and raising the minimum number of garments needed to qualify for overtime. The more insecure the environment, the higher the level of abuse. 

For women, who make up the majority of sweatshop labor in Haiti, this also means sexual abuse at the hands of supervisors. From the Guardian,

Female garment factory workers the Guardian spoke to confirm that to get a job – which has become harder because so many people are looking for work – women are expected to have sex with a male manager.

“If you don’t accept to have sex with the manager, your application will be rejected,” one worker says, adding that she works on a line that produces 3,600 T-shirts a day. “You must oblige or you won’t have a job, and also if you want a promotion, you must have sex with your supervisor.”

Previous iterations of saving Haiti via the sweatshop, e.g., the HOPE Act, mandated that monitoring systems be put into place to ensure respect for the rights of workers. It is clear that the system does not work. Monitoring is done by Better Work Haiti and funded by the World Bank, and International Labor Rights Organization. This raises the contradiction of workers having to rely on external monitoring systems rather than their own empowered, worker organizations. Better Work Haiti does report on problems in the factories, but has also under-reported sexual harrassment, in part because women are afraid to report. 

Senator Rubio is likely correct that Haiti is on the brink of collapse. He is not correct that this is because Biden is doing too little, as the Administration seems content to support the current acting government no matter how bad things get, rather than risk stepping back to give space for a more progressive, Haitian-led democratic process. And more guns and more sweatshops will not help.

Of course, industrial growth in Haiti could be a tremendous benefit, but only if that process is undertaken to serve Haitians, and to ensure that workers are in control of their destiny. That is simply not going to happen when the entire orientation of the policy is appeasing US corporations and consumers, who usually simply want cheap. 

The workers must come first. Always. 

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