Killing Haitians with North American Kindness

April 22, 2010

By Joegodson and Paul

Some innocently ignorant Americans are sending piles of second-hand  and confiscated clothing to Haitians. Thanks, but no thanks.

 It’s not a bad idea to consider the probable consequences of your actions. In fact, our legal system demands it. So, North Americans engaged in this project need to understand how our economy works. The North American economy is already seamlessly woven into the Haitian economy from the production to the destruction of each garment.

There are today 25,000 people working in the sweatshops in Haiti for foreign, mostly North American, apparel companies. This is down from 100,000 a decade ago. Clinton and the Haitian oligarchy want those numbers up again. They profit from every stitch that Haitians stitch. The masters want to surpass even the apogee of the sweatshop business in Haiti. There is a reason. With the cost of fuel, China is less and less attractive to North American companies as a source of almost free labour. Haiti, however, is practically within pissing distance of Florida. Even better, it is densely populated with a people whose attempts to self-govern and develop an internal domestic economy have been destroyed at every turn. Clinton heads the list of the destroyers of Haitian self-government.

Co-author Joegodson's father managed to escape the sweatshops and establish himself as a tailor. For over ten years, he has struggled to raise his children on a very restricted income. When his wife died, he was forced to hand his youngest children to an orphange, and pull the two eldest out of school and set them on their own. Still, he raised the four middle children, including one severely handicapped daughter, on his own. Dumping free clothes on Port-au-Prince will not make his life easier.

 Clinton has famously apologized for the suffering wrought by his politics of dumping American rice on Haiti, thus undermining a cornerstone of Haitian self-sufficiency. (By the way, Haitians are connoisseurs of rice. They love certain types of Haitian rice still grown in Artibonite and are willing to pay more for them.) His was simply the continuation of longstanding American – and Canadian – policy towards what are called ‘developing’ nations. The term ‘developing’ was promoted at some point to mask the fact that the masters of the world are assuring that poor nations never develop, but remain dependent on those with power. Everyone reading this knows how power works: bosses everywhere hate an independent workforce. That’s why you feel squeezed all the time: you need to go to work and do what you’re told.

 Second-hand clothes are the new rice. Clinton is at it again. Follow us as we follow the life of a garment in the global village. 

Co-author Joegodson took this picture of a pile of second-hand clothing outside of the Sonapi Industrial Park. These workers have just left the sweatshops where they manufacture clothing for the North American market. Now, they are rifling through second-hand clothes that have come to them from North America for something that they can afford, alter, and wear. Normally, the street merchants display their merchandise much more attractively. Joegodson was taken by the irony of the needle trade workers buying left-overs from North America.

 

Of the 25,000 Haitians sweating in the sweatshops, precisely 25,000 hate it. The dream of every one of them is to become an independent entrepreneur in some sector of the economy. But it takes capital to begin as an entrepreneur and so people work in the formal economy to try to put away a little cash. It’s pretty tough to accumulate capital on the minimum daily wage of 125 gouds (3.98$US) in the apparel industry. Nevertheless, Haitian workers have ingenious strategies to turn that death wage into a small sum of capital. (More on that later.) Last summer, the current Haitian government, under pressure from United Nations Special Envoy Bill Clinton and the Haitian oligarchy, managed to keep the minimum wage lower in the needle trades than in other sectors of the economy. That, of course, was the only sector that the Americans really cared about. It was in that sector that they wanted slaves. By the way, the minimum wage in Haiti is illegal. Legislation has not honoured the labour code introduced by Papa Doc in 1961. Under pressure from the American apparel industry and one of the most rapacious national elites on the planet, the Haitian government has not been able to live up to the legislation of one of the twentieth century’s most despicable dictators. The Haitian poor have a dream of self-employment: to be free of the control of all of those who want to profit from them. Historians have traced this desire back to the  revolution over two centuries ago.  And so, many women in the formal economy (sweatshops) work towards setting themselves up as street vendors. If they manage to find a few dollars, they can buy second-hand clothes and find a location on a street corner to sell them. This work will never pay much, but it is one of the few ways to earn a living outside of the prison of the sweatshops.

 The second-hand clothes come from North America, of course. These are, in principle, the same clothes that Haitians first stitched together for the North American market. This is how the circle works:

  • Fabric comes into Haiti. (In most cases, the production of the fabric has already caused considerable environmental damage.)
  • It goes directly to the Industrial Park conveniently located next to the port
  • Poor Haitians working in miserable conditions that no labour organizations can oversee transform it into expensive clothing.
  • The clothing is shipped out of Haiti to North America.
  • North Americans pay considerable sums of money for the same clothes. Labour costs are an infinitesimal proportion of the retail price. That is where the industry makes its huge profits.
  • North Americans wear the clothes until they don’t like them anymore. They then call a charity and have them picked up.
  • Those clothes go to a huge warehouse in Montreal or Miami where they are bought by the kilogram or pound.
  • They are shipped back to Haiti where Haitian men take the boxes from the ports and distribute them to the towns and cities. It is now called pepe in Creole.
  • Women who have escaped the sweatshops buy them by the box or a shrink-wrapped package.
  • They sort through them to see how much is not damaged. The damaged pieces they may be able to repair, being excellent seamstresses.
  • The poor people who work in the formal economy, who would need a month’s salary to buy even one of the pieces that they make daily by the thousands under the brutal quota system, buy the second-hand clothes.
  • As they are talented in the needle trades, they also often alter the clothes. The poor Haitians always look great in clothes that the North Americans toss away.

 By dumping North American second-hand clothing on the informal economy that allows Haitians to escape the nightmare of the sweatshops, the kindly Americans are condemning them to Clinton’s politics. This dumping will have the same effect on the pepe dealers that the Clinton administration had on the agricultural industry in Haiti. Dumping for free the product that is the basis of an industry will destroy the industry. In turn, the women who have finally freed themselves from the sweatshops will have to re-enter them. Only if some unforeseen catastrophe exposes that tragedy will Clinton be compelled to apologize. Except, if someone would pass this article along to him, maybe he could apologize in advance this time.

Yesterday the Canadian co-author fielded a telephone call from a business reporter from one of Canada’s major newspaper chains with a very narrow view of the industry and an apparent lack of sensitivity towards how vulnerable workers are in this age of globalization. He was reminded of how little hope exists that people embedded in the system will allow themselves to see it. The problem is that we are all embedded. To make it clearer, try to imagine a stand of free designer clothes in front of your local GAP, Reitmans, Eddie Bauer, Calvin Klein, …

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