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Sweatshops Won’t Save Haiti

Tope Folarin

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?


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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.

Tope Folarin is the 2010 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally.

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