Women at work last month at the DKDR garment assembly factory in Port-au-Prince. The international community and business leaders see January's earthquake as an opportunity to tackle corruption and inefficiencies in the economy.
Women at work last month at the DKDR garment assembly factory in Port-au-Prince. The international community and business leaders see January's earthquake as an opportunity to tackle corruption and inefficiencies in the economy. Javier Galeano/AP
Haitians see January's earthquake as a national tragedy of Biblical proportions. Haiti's small, politically connected business elite sees it as an opportunity — but not just to make money.
Business owners say the quake offers a chance to refashion the corrupt, inefficient way things are done in Haiti, while marshaling international support to put the country's nascent industries back on their feet.
"This is what the earthquake is today — an opportunity, a huge opportunity," says Reginald Boulos, a brash, 54-year-old former doctor who once worked in Haiti's most notorious slum.
"I think we need to give the message that we are open for business," says Boulos, who owns supermarkets, a car dealership, a hotel and other businesses. "This is really a land of opportunities."
At a textile plant owned by AGA, the biggest garment maker in Haiti, workers packed T-shirts on a recent day, singing a melancholic song about the hard lives they have led.
"Oh Lord, set me free," the women sang in Creole. "Life is something one can never understand."
The women, some of the Haitian garment industry's 25,000 workers, have a tough life. They earn just $3 or $4 a day. And since the Jan. 12 quake that devastated Haiti, thousands of them have been living in squalid tent cities dotting Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
Charles Baker, a former presidential candidate and owner of One World Apparel, says the quake damaged the homes of many of his more than 700 workers. But within days, his company was back in business, churning out garments for the U.S. market.
Charles Baker, a former presidential candidate and owner of One World Apparel, says the quake damaged the homes of many of his more than 700 workers. But within days, his company was back in business, churning out garments for the U.S. market. Juan Forero/NPR
But these days, they are the lucky ones. They were not hurt and they have jobs, a rarity in a country with 70 percent unemployment.
Some in the garment industry, as well as economists at the Inter-American Development Bank and other multilateral lenders, believe that Haiti could create thousands more jobs like these if foreign investment materializes.
The textile industry in Haiti already has an advantage over other countries, thanks to U.S. legislation approved in 2008 that gives Haitian-made garments duty-free, quota-free access to the United States.
Clifford Apaid's family owns AGA, which has seven factories and 9,000 workers.
"Everybody is looking at Haiti and seeing what they can do. And it is the moment to take that energy and turn it into jobs and turn it into a positive economic development for Haiti and a better future for Haiti," he says.
With Port-au-Prince devastated — and much of its infrastructure in rubble — it is hard to imagine this country rising up from the ashes.
Opportunity Amid Ruins
But Georges Sassine, a textile factory owner and head of the manufacturers' association, believes there is opportunity in the devastation.
"I remember somebody saying a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," Sassine says. "It is true, the opportunity has been thrust upon us."
Sassine, who travels the globe drumming up support for Haiti, says the low cost of operating in Haiti and the duty-free access offered by U.S. markets may lead to a job boom. That could mean 150,000 jobs in all in the garment industry, he says, a five-fold increase from current levels.
Sassine also says the international attention could pressure Haitian leaders to end the corruption and cronyism that has put personal enrichment ahead of Haiti 's well-being for so long. Despite billion of dollars in aid over the years, Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere.
The idea is "to change the foundation of this country to make it right because it is not right. It is not a democratic foundation," Sassine says.
By necessity, rebuilding will start from scratch. The infrastructure in Haiti is decrepit, the country imports nearly all of its food. Gross per capita income is barely $1,000 a year. Millions of Haitians live on less than $1 a day.
Many in Haiti, surveying the grim state of affairs, have little confidence in the business elite. They say it is a cruel irony that a small group of entrepreneurs that they consider clannish and corrupt could now be entrusted with helping Haiti recover and prosper.
Cathy Feingold is director of the AFL-CIO's solidarity center in Haiti, which supports Haitian factory workers.
"The main critique of using the textile industry as an economic development model for Haiti is that it failed throughout all the years because it's never paid a decent wage to workers, it's never offered a decent job," she says.
'We Are Still Hungry'
On a recent day at the Sonapi Industrial Park, Haitians gathered outside a factory gate, looking for work or any kind of assistance, including food. But there was none to be offered, as Eliacin Cadet quickly found out.
Cadet, 24, is ready to work and has a family to feed. But he says finding factory work — or any stable job for that matter — is nearly impossible.
"They always say that they are creating jobs," Cadet says. "But it's not true. We are still hungry."
Eduardo Almeida, Haiti representative for the Inter-American Development Bank, says he understands the frustration of workers who can't find jobs and those who consider their wages too low. But he says that the Washington-based IDB, as well as other multilateral lenders, believe that the focus should be on jump-starting employment in Haiti, which in time will help generate more jobs and, in time, better wages.
"Everybody would agree that $3 a day is nothing compared to the international standards," Almeida says. "But we have to take into account that if we create 150,000 jobs, with $3 a day, we're talking about an injection of $750 million into the economy."
He says that would "make an enormous difference" in Haiti because each textile job would create another three jobs.
Haitian business owner and former presidential candidate Charles Baker is a firm believer in that strategy. He owns One World Apparel, with 700 workers who make overalls and pants.
Baker says Haiti needs new industrial parks that can attract new factories and create a business boom. "A year from now to the next two years, we could be up where we want it to be, between 100,000 to 200,000 people working in the industry," he says.
Baker says he is hopeful, in part, because Haitian workers have been so good. When the quake hit, Baker explains, he assumed it would be weeks before his plant would be up and running.
"Within three days they were producing what they were producing before the earthquake," he says. "For me, it's unbelievable. That gives you hope, that in itself."