Sweatshops Won't Save Haiti

The United Nations will host a Haiti donors' conference at the end of
March.

This conference will be quite different from last year's event,
of course, coming as it does on the heels of the worst earthquake to
strike Haiti in two centuries. An agenda has already begun to take
shape: It's already clear that a future Haiti must be populated with
environmentally sustainable, earthquake-resistant buildings, for
example, and it's also clear that the international community must do
something to ease Haiti's massive debt burden.

The United Nations will host a Haiti donors' conference at the end of
March.

This conference will be quite different from last year's event,
of course, coming as it does on the heels of the worst earthquake to
strike Haiti in two centuries. An agenda has already begun to take
shape: It's already clear that a future Haiti must be populated with
environmentally sustainable, earthquake-resistant buildings, for
example, and it's also clear that the international community must do
something to ease Haiti's massive debt burden.

Former President Bill Clinton, currently serving as the UN's
envoy to Haiti, and economist Paul Collier have another idea that could
prove disastrous. They think Haiti needs to leverage its "cheap labor."

In other words, they think Haiti will solve its problems by
opening up more sweatshops.

Of course Clinton and Collier don't call them sweatshops. They
talk about "garment factories" or "manufacturing centers" or simply
"workshops," but they are sweatshops and nothing more.

For Haiti to join the ranks of developed nations, they argue,
Haitians must first work as many hours as possible for paltry wages so
that their economy can grow.

Congress seems to agree. It has passed several bills that provide
Haitian garment-makers preferential access to American
consumers. According to conventional knowledge, Haiti was on the road to
economic success--as a result of these legislative reforms--before the
earthquake. Now, the logic goes, Haitians must rebuild their collapsed
"workshops" and produce as many cheap T-shirts as possible.

All this ignores the most important point: sweatshop labor's
inherent inhumanity. Sweatshop labor proponents have never worked in the
conditions they so enthusiastically endorse for others. When advocating
such solutions, they often offer compelling numbers as proof of their
effectiveness. But what about the human costs: the extra hours workers
spend away from their families, the risk of injury that accompanies
repetitive movements, and the loss of morale as some boss demands that
you produce even more?

In Haiti, there are a few plausible alternatives to sweatshop
labor. In the lead-up to last year's donors' conference, progressive
Haitian civil society organizations suggested a development program that
focuses on local production and agriculture. They argued, convincingly,
that the benefits from sweatshop labor often end up somewhere else,
since the clothes are constructed on-site; the material for the clothes
are shipped in, and the clothes are shipped out upon completion.

A focus on locally produced goods, however, would have the
opposite effect. Haitian entrepreneurs would produce according to
Haitian needs, and every part of the manufacturing process--from the
development of materials to the production of goods--would take place in
Haiti and benefit Haitians.

In addition, building up the capacity of Haitian farmers is
crucial in the coming months and years. Haiti has been dependent on food
aid for many years now, and a national program that focused on
sustainable agriculture would not only have the effect of providing a
livelihood and locally produced food for countless Haitians, it would
also allow Haiti to address the environmental degradation that has
crippled its economy for generations.

The link between these two suggestions is infrastructure
development. Better roads and better transportation generally mean a
much more stable and efficient economy.

All three of these proposals would require funding from the
international community and expertise from abroad as well. All three
proposals, if enacted, would benefit Haitians enormously.

The upcoming donors' conference is an incredibly important forum.
We have an opportunity to help Haitians rebuild in a manner that
simultaneously respects their humanity and enables them to become more
productive.

We have an opportunity to heed the voices of concerned and
knowledgeable Haitians. Now isn't the time to subsidize foreign
investors' sweatshops.

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