As Caracol Industrial Park Progresses, Scrutiny of Problems Grows

06/05/2012 12:00am

The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles reports on the planned Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti today, noting that while the project’s funders tout it as “the most visible symbol of post-quake progress”, it remains a source of controversy. Charles writes:

Desperate for any good news after the devastating January 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government signed off on the 600-acre industrial park in this remote rural village without preparing for how the region should eventually look — or absorb the promised jobs. Only now is a zoning plan being developed, but residents and Haiti watchers wonder if it’s coming too late.

Their anxiety is fueled by Haiti’s historically weak institutions and the rush by the international community and Haiti’s leaders to show progress. It is also a reflection of the challenges of working in Haiti where there is continuous friction between need-to-spend foreign aid agencies, which are often perceived as arrogant, and a weak central government.

As a result, Haiti analysts say, projects are often haphazardly started with too little preliminary planning, lopsided consultation and inadequate environmental impact studies.

“The international community has been under immense pressure to show movement and this is the closest they’ve come to have something significantly positive to say about Haiti, investments and jobs,” said Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies. “But on the other hand, this is really one case where there is no excuse for not getting it done right.”

A major issue is what the effect will be of an estimated influx of 300,000 people into the area, where town populations range from 1,500 to 25,000. Charles reports:

“When you look at the social problems that Cité Soleil poses today, you have to ask, did it have to be that way?” said Michèle Oriol, executive secretary of Haiti’s Inter-ministerial Commission on Territorial Planning, which has objected to the park’s location, and that of a U.S.-financed housing development just off the main commercial corridor.

Alex Dupuy, Haiti-born sociology professor at Wesleyan University, comments:

“It’s about tapping a source of cheap labor…They did the same thing in Port-au-Prince, which had people leaving the countryside because of the free-trade policies that have devastated the Haitian agriculture sector. So the fear that the region will be flooded is very real.”

Dupuy adds that the push to support the garment manufacturing industry “has absolutely nothing to do with creating a sustainable growth economy in Haiti.”

Environmental Concerns

Charles also notes that the plan has come under fire from environmentalists, who “point out that an IDB consultant’s report noted there wasn’t enough time to evaluate the potential impact of the garment dyeing on the nearby ecosystem.” Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW), which conducted an in depth investigation of the Caracol plan, has previously reported on the environmental concerns. A U.S.-based consultancy, Koios Associates, was hired to help choose the site and originally had ranked Caracol as one of the better suited sites. Yet, after the fact, the same consultancy admitted that “the study process and the section of sites was not accompanied by extensive environmental, hydrologic or topographic research.” HGW reports that Koios went on to suggest either moving the location or cancelling the project outright. Despite this and other environmental concerns discussed in greater detail by HGW, the project has continued.

What Types of Jobs?

Another investigation by HGW looked into what types of jobs will be created by the garment industry and if, as President Martelly says, “This model of investment will allow Haitians to feel proud.” The HGW investigation found that wages were actually lower now than under the Duvalier dictatorship and that over half of a worker’s daily wage is spent on lunch and transportation costs to and from work. HGW’s investigative reporters interviewed a factory worker named Evelyn Pierre-Paul, who:

hasn’t been able to save up a year’s rent yet. Twenty-three months after the catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands, she and her children are still living under a tent in one of the capital’s hundreds of squalid refugee camps.

Pierre-Paul’s average daily take-home wage is actually more than Haiti’s minimum factory wage of 150 gourdes, or 3.75 dollars, a day. She earns about 236 gourdes, or 5.90 dollars a day. But that doesn’t cover even one-quarter of what would be considered a family’s most basic expenses.

HGW also notes that:

A recent study by the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, which is linked to the AFL-CIO trade union federation, determined that a “living wage” for a worker with two children is 749 dollars a month – almost five times the average monthly wage.

Pierre-Paul’s wage – about 150 dollars a month – is far from “living”. She can’t afford to send all her children to school. She can’t even afford to move out of the squalid camp.

Labor rights are also a serious issue in the garment industry. On the same day that officials from the U.S., IDB and Haitian government laid the cornerstone of the future industrial park, an investigation by Better Work Haiti found “evidence of violations of freedom of association” at other Haitian textile factories. Until September 2011 there was only one union in the garment industry and none in Port-au-Prince. Workers however organized the first sector-wide union (SOTA) this past fall, obtaining registration from the Haitian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on September 16. Over the next two weeks, six of seven members of the new executive committee were fired. The most recent Better Work Haiti report, which “uncovered a higher number of violations in the areas of core labour standards than what [was] observed in the previous assessments”, is available here.

Ansel Herz, an independent journalist who has previously reported on this issue, spoke with Yasmine Shamsie, a Canadian scholar who has advocated for a different approach to the garment industry in Haiti. Shamsie notes that the new industrial park was “not conditional on allowing unions to organise that space”. Herz continues:

Her 2010 report for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum called for a “high-road approach” to the Haitian apparel industry’s expansion, including unionising workers and providing welfare programmes to raise their living standards.

She said she didn’t understand the “lack of interest” in that strategy from international donors. “To be frank, it’s a no-brainer,” Shamsie said. “You say you want to create employment and reduce poverty – then give workers the tools to advocate for better than poverty wages.”

For further background, an Al Jazeera video report last year looked at the garment factories in Haiti. In the video, Sebastian Walker speaks with Yannick Etienne, a member of the worker rights organization Batay Ouvriye, who tells Walker that the factories lead to, “the reproduction of poverty.” Also, for more background information, The Real News Network aired a three part series with Didier Dominique, another member of Batay Ouvriye. The report examined working conditions in the factories, and the ability of workers to unionize.

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