Farming has long been Haiti’s economic mainstay, but many see the garment industry as the key to tackling unemployment
For Wilson Laleau, Haiti’s finance minister, that means thousands of unglamorous factory jobs, mainly in the garment sector. This might seem a surprising aspiration but Laleau, a trained economist, has a step-by-step plan.
“We need basic jobs for people without skills,” he says, “but those jobs will not be the locomotive of our economy … [For that] we need to value the asset that is our people, and create opportunities for them through vocational training.”
George Sassine, a prominent textile businessman, says garment factory jobs are “passage obligé”, a necessary route to better things for Haiti.
The sector employs 31,000 people, mainly turning out T-shirts for North American companies such as Walmart, Hanes and Gildan. It is piecework and poorly paid. “It takes 19 workers to make a dozen T-shirts. At $1.45 per dozen, and 300 dozen a day, it is not until you’ve made 200 dozen that a worker has earned the minimum wage,” Sassine says.
Unsurprisingly, basic jobs are a controversial issue in Haiti, even though unemployment is more than 40% and the World Bank last year put gross national income at $760 (£485), one-seventh of neighbouring Dominican Republic.
The government has just signed an agreement to establish Haiti’s first agricultural free zone for organic fruit and vegetables for export. From theHaiti Support Group, a civil society organisation, to non-profits such as Hope for Haiti and Farm Haiti, many believe the republic’s salvation lies in going back to the soil. Farms can create food security, food sovereignty and perhaps even export income, they argue.
Mango exporter Jean-Maurice Buteau says agriculture is more sustainable and less changeable than garment manufacture. “After all, what do you do if Calvin Klein suddenly changes styles? You have to retrain everyone. That takes months,” he argues.
But agriculture, long underfunded, has become unproductive. It contributes just 25% of GDP, compared with 55% in the 1980s. Buteau says this is mainly because a third of harvests goes to waste due to poor handling and non-existent storage facilities and transport networks. “We export just 30% of our crop,” he says.
Frantz Bernard Craan, chairman of Société Financière Haïtienne de Dévelopment, Haiti’s only private development finance organisation, offers Haiti’s low rice yield per hectare as an illustration of the problem’s scale. “It is 1.5 metric tonnes here, 5 to 6 metric tonnes in the Dominican Republic, and 9 in the US.”
Lionel Delatour, a government adviser, doubts agriculture can solve Haiti’s employment issues. A former diplomat, he successfully lobbied Washington to get duty-free access to the US for Haitian-made apparel and textiles, a unique arrangement signed into law in the 2008 Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (Hope) Act pdf .
“I really want Haiti to win a gold at the Winter Olympics,” he says with ironic emphasis. “But we’re a Caribbean island, so I think that’s unlikely. So what do I have? Agriculture is the largest sector, but it is rudimentary. I don’t have the infrastructure for tourism as yet. The only continuous growth in the last four or five years has been in the garment sector.”
Garments constitute 90% of Haiti’s exports, earning $800m, the biggest source of foreign exchange after diaspora remittances. Mango exports total just $12-15m.
Henri-Claude Müller-Poitevien, a member of the presidential commission for the Hope act’s implementation, says Haiti needs to capitalise on its advantages, which are also sought by Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia.
“We know that Hope is unique, but we lost two years because of the quake and it runs out in 2020,” he says. “So we need to improve pricing and provide quality – [such as] embellishments, embroidery and accessories – because Bangladeshi labour is cheaper than Haitian.”
At 200 Haitian gourdes ($5) a day, the national minimum wage is hardly riches. But that still works out to $150 a month, says Müller-Poitevien; in Bangladesh, it is $40.
Delatour adds that, Hope or not, Haiti has one clear advantage over Bangladesh: there is no child labour. The unstated reality is that there are too many unemployed Haitian adults fighting for the same job to allow entry to underage workers.
What then of the debate over factory versus farm? Regine Barjon, marketing director for the Haitian-American chamber of commerce of Florida, is among those who believe Haiti need not choose. Barjon points to a potential partnership between her company, BioTek Haiti SA, and farmers in Léogâne – about 19 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince – as a good example of agribusiness entrepreneurship. The project would revitalise the underperforming Darbonne sugar mill, boosting production to faciltate stronger domestic and overseas sales and enabling the electricity generated from the waste to be sold to the national power company.
When pressed, even Buteau admits agriculture cannot remain a country’s core business. “In the 1700s, 80% of the US population was engaged in agriculture. Now, it’s 3%.”
For Laleau, it is all about timing. He wants to move from basic jobs to those that utilise the skills and overwhelming number (seven in 10) of Haitians under 30. “They are young, why should they stop dreaming?” he muses.
It is a good question. But it will be up to his government to make their dreams a reality.