Production and Reproduction: the Cost of Doing Business in Haiti

April 20, 2011

Paul and Joegodson

Joegodson had been putting off visiting his family in Simon. It’s not far away from Delmas 33, but returning to his home neighbourhood presents him with problems that he cannot solve. He has a plan to address the most pressing issue, although he hasn’t got the means to implement it at the moment. The real problems are systemic and, therefore, will require a social response. Neither Joegodson nor you can solve them alone. You can only solve them together.

Many people understand the horrors that go by the euphemism of ‘productivity’ in the global economy. The economists invited to determine global economic policies are those who best master the language of the unspoken. ‘Productivity’ sounds very positive. ‘Labour productivity’ seems to celebrate the competence of workers. In fact, it is more a measure of how much profit you can squeeze out of them. Who produces the profits that allow economists to speak of productivity? More importantly, who creates the workforce that ensures that there will be workers to exploit in the name of productivity? Production for profit; reproduction for profit.

Someone has to make the workers before anyone can exploit them. We are reflecting here on who bears the burden of raising the workforce that is most exploited in the global economy, in Haiti and elsewhere.

A couple of days ago, Joegodson steeled himself and went down to Simon in Site Soley. Let’s first spend a minute to see why this should be a problem for him. All of Joegodson’s family is in Simon. Before his father Deland lost his hope, his health, and then his life, he kept everyone alive as best he could. He left behind children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, neighbours and friends in greater need than ever before. Up in Delmas 33, Joegodson’s wife Antonia gave birth to their first child Joenaara shortly after Deland’s death. Joegodson has kept them as healthy as possible in the circumstances. He is a cabinetmaker. He has spent the last couple of weeks making furniture for a newlywed couple. Although he is recognized for his superior skills and is most at peace when he is working, he cannot earn a living from that vocation. The poor cannot pay even for the materials; the rich will not pay for his time and skills since they know that the poor are desperate and compelled to accept a starvation wage. So, he has been spending time working on our projects. He writes and is becoming adept at videography. He is motivated to communicate the reality of the lives around him.

He knew that things were deteriorating in Simon. He also knew that he had no way to help and was overloaded with the necessity of keeping his immediate family alive. But he couldn’t forget his sisters and his cousin, Susamèle, in Simon. The thought of going to visit filled him with dread. Everyone would look to him for help. He had nothing to offer. For awhile, he tried to keep his head in the sand, but he could still hear them. You can’t bury your head in the sand for long because you suffocate.

The anxiety was compounded by the spectre of the neighbours. Once you leave Site Soley, your neighbours keep you in their sites. You remain a topic of conversation or gossip. Joegodson identifies two fundamental attitudes that frame discussions in Simon in relation to those who leave. Some people hope that you improve your life and your situation. Others are jealous that you might improve your life and your situation. If your material condition improves, they will be jealous; if it doesn’t, then you have demonstrated that you’re a loser. That can be a small comfort for the hopeless. While these two distinct spirits animate the community, both expect that you will contribute to the misery of daily life in Simon. This attitude is pervasive in different communities in Haiti. Everyone assumes that conditions must be better elsewhere. Peasants assume that the urban dwellers are better off; those in the poorest shantytowns imagine that life is easier in other neighbourhoods. But poverty is not distributed so clearly in Port-au-Prince or in Haiti. The geographic symbols of wealth, like Petionville, are the lieu of some of the poorest communities. Even Belleville has shantytowns. Joegodson has been following increasingly acrimonious battles between earthquake victims who have created new communities of squatters, numbered in the thousands, and the landlords who are claiming the land as their own.

Joegodson knew that he had nothing to bring with him to Simon but himself. He also knew that everyone was expecting something. Moreover, he tries to present himself in public as decently as possible. He is, after all, the son of a tailor. He takes care that when he leaves his neighbourhood, he wears his best clothes that he keeps clean. His appearance heightened expectations that he is better off than his old neighbours in Simon. But he isn’t.

The least sympathetic of his home community offer those who leave a crappy choice: you are either a bastard who succeeded or a loser who didn’t. But that framework really describes the people’s sense of helplessness in the face of the lack of choices in Simon. All choices lead to the same misery.

Simon knocked the wind out of him. First was his little sister Gloria who is severely handicapped. As he feared, no one has been able to take the place of Deland. She is now suffering from rashes in her midsection. Worse, her tongue is infected and she cannot eat. Her epileptic seizures are more frequent – several each day. She is mostly alone in her suffering, without Deland to calm her down. She isn’t able to comprehend why Deland is no longer there.

Joegodson’s other two little sisters and his cousin Susamèle all have babies several months old. Roselande is caring for her baby girl, Barbara. It is difficult. Last year, during her pregnancy, Roselande contracted a serious disease. The drugs that she was given were strong and harmed Barbara’s development in the womb. When Barbara was born last October, she was tiny and jaundiced. No one thought that she would live more than a few days. Roselande continues to keep her baby alive. However, Joegodson was afraid to hold Barbara in his arms – rather, hands. Barbara remains tiny, no more than a skeleton. Roselande is not able to breastfeed and Barbara is still yellow. Yet, she remains alive. Joegodson’s other sister, Christlande, gave birth to Charlie shorty after Barbara arrived. Then Susamèle had a little girl. Both are doing well and their mothers are caring for them. How do they eat? The neighbours make sure the young mothers have enough to keep their babies alive. Fathers? None of the three mothers has any paternal support. As we recounted previously, Susamèle lost her boyfriend the moment that he found out that he had made her pregnant. Neither of his sisters know where the fathers are. The young mothers are alone to raise their children as best they can.

For all of their competitiveness and, sometimes, malicious gossip, Joegodson notices that the community of Simon comes together to care for the mothers in need. It is a social obligation. They cannot let the mothers lose their babies. The mothers are doing everything that they can to care for their newborns in, literally, disastrous conditions. So, the cost of reproducing the workforce falls to the poorest women with the help of their communities. The cost of the basic building block of the global economy – the workers – is socialized among the poorest communities. The profits are privatized.

Who will profit? According to Haiti’s economic plans, the sweatshops that produce profits for the multinational corporations will expand. Already, the people of Simon live in the shadow of the SONAPI Industrial Park. The MNCs are all equally committed to exploiting the local workforce. GAP’s noble CEO claimed that he wanted to expand his operations in Haiti because he wants his company to do good by the poor victims of the Haitian earthquake. Every corporation had stuff like that to say while the spotlight was on Haiti. Gildan even claimed to be helping the victims! That was rich. So, who will they be hiring in the future?

As the mortality rate continues to climb, young women like Susamele, Christlande, and Roselande will have to supply the workers. GAP, Gildan, and the rest – committed to doing good for Haiti – can sit back and wait until these Haitian mothers bring their babies to working age. It is amazing that Susamèle, Christlande, and Roselande have the strength to keep such fragile beings alive in the conditions of Site Soley. The neighbourhood of Simon comes together to help them as much as possible. Eventually, and with luck, they will be of age to enter the workforce and produce the profits that our fashion industry seeks. Before the workers produce the profits, the mothers must reproduce Haitians. That part of the industry isn’t so glamourous.

Joegodson has an idea. If he can make some money, he is going to help the three young mothers set up their own business. In the neighbourhood of Simon, that means a little commerce selling some necessity. As street merchants, working together, they might be able to earn enough to care for their babies together. All three are in the same boat. Susamèle, Christlande, and Roselande will be able to cooperate more fully in raising their three babies and be less of a drag on the neighbourhood.

The system will remain in place. There is no way of changing that unless we imagine, and then implement, a fundamental cooperation across borders.

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