Over the past few weeks in this article series, we’ve heard firsthand from Haitian garment workers about low wages, sexual abuse, labor-related violations and work-related injuries they suffered in sweatshops.
Meanwhile, the world has watched the death toll in last month’s factory collapse in Bangladesh creep to above 1,100. Global activists have joined the calls of protesting workers, ramping up pressure
on clothing retailers against the regular mistreatment and deaths of
workers. Slowly, the public is realizing that exploitation within the
garment assembly industry is not the exception, it’s the rule. Today, we
take a deep dive into the economics of this sector in Haiti to look at
how it has come to be, and at what alternative pathways might look like.
In discussions among foreigners about working conditions and wages in
the assembly industry, we often hear, “But Haitians need jobs. Wouldn’t
things be worse without them?” The question creates a false choice between no job and a grinding,
exploitative job. Looking at the factors that led to low factory wages
in the first place helps expose the myth. Western governments and their
international financial institution (IFI) partners have played an active
role in creating the dearth of options that exists for Haitian workers.
For example, trade policies
from the 1980s onward caused the decimation of the Haitian agricultural
sector. Out-of-work farmers fled on masse to cities, and many had no
better option but a factory job. Foreign policies imposed on the Haitian
government have also contributed to a near-complete lack of public
services and a weak, dependent domestic economy, which ramp up
desperation; desperation, in turn, forced workers to accept the low wages.
The offshore assembly model creates a race to the bottom. In it,
businesses circle the globe seeking the lowest cost of production –
which involves the lowest health and safety standards and suppressed
union organizing. As factories move to the next country, they create dirt-poor workers. Despite this, governments, the UN, and the IFIs tout the garment
assembly industry as a path to development in global South countries.
The UN places the expansion of free trade zones (groupings of
export-producing factories that enjoy tax exemptions and fewer safety,
health, and environment regulations) toward the center of its
development road map for Haiti. A 2009 report it commissioned argued that Haiti’s duty-free, quota-free preferential
access to the American market, combined with low labor costs and a lack
of protectionist policies, makes the country “the world’s safest
production location for garments.”
Weeks after the earthquake, that
paper’s author, Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier, likened the catastrophic moment to 19th Century
development of the US West, with its “investment booms, financed by
enthusiastic outsiders. The earthquake could usher in such a boom in
Apparently sharing this view, four months after the earthquake the US
Congress extended US trade preferences for assembled garments to Haiti
in a law
that was portrayed as a relief measure. Also since the earthquake, the
US and other global players came up with $224 million to subsidize the
development of a new free trade zone in northern Haiti,Caracol.
Developers, who displace 366 farmers from arable farmland for the project, promised more than 20,000 jobs. In actuality, fewer than 1,500
people are employed in the park; and after paying for transportation
and meals, workers reportedly end each day with an average of US $1.36. More free-trade zones are in the offing. For all the funding and attention the sector has received, the 24
factories currently making garments for export to the US employ very few
people: 25,924, or approximately 0.5% of the working age population.
No matter the numbers, the industry’s contribution to the national
economy is false development, said economist Camille Chalmers with the
Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti. “Almost all of
the primary materials used in manufacturing come from outside. When they
say that Haiti exports hundreds of millions of dollars in products, a
lot of that goes to [foreign companies to] pay for the inputs like cloth
and equipment. Once assembled, the goods aren’t consumed in Haiti but
are shipped abroad. The government doesn’t even benefit from taxes or
tariffs. Haiti’s only role is as a stopover in the production process,
where cheap labor keeps profit margins high.”
Haiti does need work opportunities, as any cash-desperate person
there will tell you. But not at any price or under any conditions.
Former factory worker Ghislene Deloné said, “It can’t be based on the
exploitation of people. We need to be treated like human beings.” And
Camille Chalmers said, “When we speak of employment, we have to talk
about the quality of employment. [This sector] doesn’t create work that
can develop our human resources or reduce poverty. These comparative
advantages just reproduce misery.”
It is often still the case that, when pressured, companies just close
their doors and relocate to another country. This doesn’t mean that we
should stop campaigning, but rather that we should redouble our efforts
to raise the floor everywhere. Instead of allowing unlivable wages and
violation of labor rights to be cast as a comparative advantage, we
should accept nothing less than jobs with justice for all.
Read full article from Beverly Bell at Other Worlds
Yet another example of how capitalism works - through exploitation. As do many workers worldwide Haitians have long firsthand experience of what this means. Sympathetic as we may be to anyone in such dire straits, as socialists we take every opportunity to point out the futility of seeking 'better' jobs when we recognise the imperative of abolishing the wages system itself if we are to achieve egalitarianism.