RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Three years after the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake, international aid agencies are pouring millions of dollars into a project far from the quake's epicenter. The aid is flowing to an industrial park in the country's north coast, an area once surrounded by small farms.
The hope is to stimulate Haiti's economy, encouraging people to move out of the overcrowded capital and create jobs. The problem is, say critics, the jobs don't pay enough to lift people out of poverty. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this report on the project in today's business bottom line.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Caracol Industrial Park is one of the most tangible developments to come out of the billions of dollars in post-earthquake aid to Haiti. The sprawling, 600-acre compound sits in what used to be small vegetable plots and scrubby pastures halfway between Cap-Haitien and the Dominican border. The industrial park officially opened late last year, but much of it is still under construction.
GEORGES SASSINE: The goal is for this park to be directly hiring 60,000 people.
BEAUBIEN: Georges Sassine is the head of Sonapi, the Haitian government agency that oversees industrial parks. He also has been in the garment manufacturing business in Haiti for decades. Caracol is his baby, and Sassine is confident that international manufacturers will want to set up operations inside the park's gates.
SASSINE: Why do they want to come here? Economics, the availability of labor, cost of labor, access to the U.S. market. We are very close to the U.S., plus you're not paying duty. So it's win-win-win.
BEAUBIEN: Labor here is plentiful. People are lined up outside the gates trying to get work. Wages are cheap at roughly $5 a day. And thanks to legislation passed by the U.S. Congress after the earthquake, most Haitian textiles can now enter the U.S. duty-free.
The anchor tenant at the park is the Korean clothing giant SAE-A. Inside a brightly lit, brand new factory, women in lime-green smocks and matching headscarves sit in long rows. Each row produces a different color T-shirt -purple, black, green, white.
(SOUNDBITE OF FACTORY MACHINES)
BEAUBIEN: These shirts will sell for $7 apiece at Wal-Mart stores in the United States. SAE-A currently has just over a thousand people working at this plant, but plans to hire thousands more. Sherwin-Williams recently started a paint production facility across the street. Other blue-metal buildings are going up across the park.
Near the back of the complex USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development has installed a 10-megawatt power plant. Sassine says the generators provide electricity not just to the park but also to the surrounding communities which never had power before.
SASSINE: The whole idea again is not only to create jobs. It's to see if we can create better living conditions for everybody around. That's what it's all about.
BEAUBIEN: Many local resident however shrug off the arrival of electricity, saying they can't afford to pay for it. Caracol feels as if it's in the middle of nowhere, and that's exactly what the project's planners intended. One of the reasons the 2010 earthquake was so deadly, was that over the last four decades hundreds of thousands of Haitians migrated to Port-au-Prince looking for work. And when the quake hit, many of them were packed into overcrowded, poorly built cinder-block buildings.
Gilles Damais, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank's Haiti office, says Caracol is a critical element of efforts to decentralize Haiti away from the capital.
GILLES DAMAIS: Port-au-Prince was built for, more or less, 250,000 people. And now we have near from three million people in the metropolitan areas. It's unsustainable. It's impossible to rebuild such a monster.
BEAUBIEN: The IDB has poured more than $130 million into Caracol and expects to spend millions more on the project in 2013. In addition to the park, IDB and USAID are constructing thousands of houses nearby. The Dominican government built, as its primary earthquake relief gesture to Haiti, a new public university in the area. The hope, from an economist's point of view, is that all of this new activity will spur the growth of other businesses and a rising tide will lift all boats.
But Haiti has had clothing factories for decades, and it's still the poorest country in the hemisphere. The notorious slum of Cite Soleil began as housing for garment workers in Port-au-Prince's export zone. Pierre Telemaque, who's worked at textile plants in the capital for the last decade, says these jobs do not offer a path out of poverty. A typical salary of five to seven dollars a day, he says, isn't enough to live on.
Imagine, he says, if you have to take one of the collective pickup truck taxis, known as tap taps, to get to work each day.
PIERRE TELEMAQUE: (French spoken)
BEAUBIEN: It costs 12 Haitian dollars or about a dollar fifty for transport to get back and forth to work, he says. Then if you buy something to eat for breakfast and something at lunch, you can end up taking home just a dollar or two for the whole day. Telemaque says most workers can't even afford to rent a small room. But in a country where 70 percent of the population lacks regular employment, Georges Sassine at Caracol says textile jobs at least provide a steady income.
SASSINE: Wages are never enough to lift people out of poverty, especially in a poor country.
BEAUBIEN: Pointing towards the roughly 1000 women currently working at the SAE A T-shirt plant, Sassine says these women are now able to boost their family's incomes above the national average. And money is flowing into the entire community.
SASSINE: Today they are getting 200 gourdes every day. That's 200,000 gourdes every day that comes into this area, which never saw 200,000 gourdes a year.
BEAUBIEN: He says the minimum wage of 200 gourdes, or roughly five dollars a day, at least improves workers' living standards, and it's better than no job at all. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)