International Interference in Haiti Is Crushing Its Garment Industry

Even before Haiti’s unelected de facto and extremely unpopularAriel Henry, Prime Minister, shocked an already economically strained Haitian population when he announced on September 11 that he was ending fuel subsidy (a single gallon of gas now costs $4.79 in U.S. currency), the Haitian economy has been taking hit after hit from its foreign “investors.” Conflicts concerning who has the right to govern Haiti, and for what term, have torn up the country since prior to the assassination of Haitian President Jovenal Moïse in his Port-au-Prince home in July 2021. Moïse had selected Henry as Haiti’s prime minister just two days before he was trapped in his bedroom, roughed up (the autopsy showed several broken bones) and then slain in a hail of 15 bulletsOne of them exploded his heart.

After a two-week power struggle between Henry and the then-incumbent Prime Minister Claude Joseph, Henry prevailed and assumed power on July 21, becoming Haiti’s seventh prime minister in four years. Henry’s alignment with the foreign oligarchic forces suppressing Haiti politically and economically was a factor in Daniel Foote’s resignation as U.S. Special Envoy a year ago. As Truthout reported, Foote did not mince words when criticizing the Biden administration for its decision to support Henry: “[W]hat our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates,” Foote wrote. “The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive.”

While Foote’s historic act was noted, it was not heeded, and continued U.S. support of Henry has come grievously home to roost. A major foreign apparel company began operations in Haiti in mid-July. announcedMassive layoffs have been made in the garment industry, and they are passing on the pain of what they claim has been a 45 per cent reduction in orders from major U.S. clients like Target, Walmart, and The Gap to Haitian workers, their families, and their families. Industry insiders predict that mass layoffs will also be possible. 20,000 jobsLocal reports suggest that this could be the end of the line. This is more than 34 percent all workersThe garment industry is a significant sector. accountsNearly 90 percent of Haiti’s exports. Some factories, like Go Haiti, laid off 800 workers, have already closed up shop entirely, and Val D’Or CEO Robert Rothbaum stands accused of illegally shuttering the apparel company’s Port-au-Prince factory without notice in January, and absconding with 1,000 Haitian workers’ wages and severance pay.

This inhumanity combined with an inflation rate of over 22 percent made it impossible for Haitian workers close the gap between their meager sweatshop earnings, and the cost of basic human needs. led to an industry-wide strikeThis modest gain was a win for workers: On February 21, 2018, the Superior Council on Wages decided to increase the minimum wage of garment workers. 770 gourdes(or $6.63 U.S. currency). A dayThis is roughly half of what they were asking for. With inflation at a record high, however, 30.5 percentThose gains have been reduced to a minimum. In such desperate times, a job, even one that’s woefully compensated, is arguably better than no job at all.

Opposition to Ariel Henry Continues as De Facto Prime Minster: Grassroots Unite

Even in the midst of the current widespread turmoil, labor unions and workers’ rights advocates in Haiti are sounding a screeching alarm about the layoffs that are expected to happen by year end. They are explicitly connecting the issue to international interference with Haiti’s political sovereignty, especially the continued imposition of the U.S.-backed Henry, who critics say has stood squarely in the way of democratic self-governance.

In open letter last month to S&H Global SA, the subsidiary corporation of a South Korean company which said it will reduce its workforce in Haiti from 10,000 workers to 6,000, the Autonomous Central of Haitian Workers (CATH) called the deep cuts “illegal, unjustified, and unjustifiable.” The labor union’s letter cries out against the proposed layoffs and the union-busting tactics used against workers attempting to advance garment workers’ rights, and demands restitution for harms against them.

The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a law firm based in Port-au-Prince that represents unions in their fight against labor rights abuses in Haiti, is pressing the money damages case for the Val D’Or workers. In a blistering press releaseAccording to labor law firm, the cause of the massive layoffs proposed is the stranglehold foreign business interests have over the garment sector. The firm points out a number of key legal mechanisms in loan or trade programs that have been disastrously imposed upon Haiti over the years. The Core GroupAriel Henry answered the same question about the multinational supervisory body. Imposed upon Haiti by the United Nations in 2004 after the U.S.-backed coup of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, The Core Group is charged with “steering the electoral process.” Comprised of ambassadors to Haiti from Brazil, the European Union, France, Germany, Spain and the United States, in addition to representatives to Haiti from the Organization of American States and the United Nations, its creation was originally proposed as a six-month interim transition support measure, yet it endures to this day. Many Haitians understandably see Henry as being in cahoots with the enemy, defined in this instance as foreign states exploiting (and now blithely discarding) the Haitian workforce, enabled by Haiti’s entrenched oligarchic forces.

BAI also calls out a turn in U.S. foreign policy so intent in controlling Haiti’s politics that it perversely acts against the business interests of U.S. companies that have, until recently, been able to richly profit from low-cost apparel goods manufactured in Haiti. BAI’s September 8 press release states:

This is most recently manifest in U.S. support for de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry and his repressive and undemocratic government, whose policies drive many of Haiti’s current challenges — including the deteriorating security situation that is pushing foreign investors out of the country. “Haitians do not need more conditioned loans and sweatshops,” explains BIA Managing Attorney Mario Joseph. “If the international community really wants to help, they should stop interfering in our democracy and investing in jobs that inhibit our self-sufficiency and fail to give back to the community.”

Its announcement, S&H Global attributed the reduction of demand by its customers which precipitated the layoffs to “the recent economic decline in the US market.” But Ose Pierre, a representative of the Solidarity CenterWho is living among, organizing with, and talking to garment workers every single day, believes that the ambiguous statement makes sense. “They don’t want to say that there’s a problem because there’s no order,” Pierre told Truthout by telephone from Port-au-Prince, “because of the political situation in Haiti.”

In Pierre’s analysis, Henry’s continuation of Moïse’s extra-parliamentary authoritarian rule has created such political instability, bloody turf wars and lethal street fights, that businesses are being defeated in their struggles to fulfill orders.

“The political issue has a very big impact on production in Haiti,” Pierre explained. “We have gangs in control of the street. They decide when people can go to work, or not.” This is especially a problem for workers who live in one district of the city, but who have to pass through another to reach their workplace, he added. “We have two factories in Carrefour but the workers cannot cross Martissant. It’s a problem. There are two other factories in the area. Croix-des-Bouquets where drivers crossing the border were kidnapped while trying to deliver the containers.”

Factory owners are closing the factories because “business as usual” cannot be conducted, he emphasized, and not because workers are intentionally withholding their labor. Surrounded by a vicious gang and police violenceAccording to him, people tend to stay close to their homes and live in communities where neighbors know one another. Venturing out of one’s own turf can lead to dangerous confrontations with warring gang members affiliated with various political parties, or just getting caught in the crossfire.

“We have a prime minister here, but we don’t have a parliament, and we don’t know exactly who manages this country,” Pierre said. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons why one year after the assassination of Moïse, we’ve never heard a resolution about what actually happened. We’ve heard that the prime minister may be implicated, but the story keeps changing, and we don’t know exactly where these things are left.”

People with the means to leave are leaving in their own vehicles

Those who can, Pierre says, are selling their possessions to scratch together enough money to secure a visa and $800 or $900 for a ticket to Brazil or Chile “where it’s actually not that much better,” he said. They also attempt to cross into Dominican Republic, which is openly and murderously hostile towards Haitian workers. Even Dominican Black people have been slain there recentlyThey were mistaken for Haitian nationals.

Also perilous, Haitians are risking their lives on unsafe voyages on the open sea to the U.S. “In the last couple of months, we saw many boats, and those sailing in them were being arrested on the ocean,” Pierre said. “People cannot afford to live in Haiti. For those who cannot go to another country, they try to find another job.”

Pierre explained that although they have been trained to sew and spent their entire lives making apparel, many workers lack transferable skills and have taken to selling their own products on the streets. “You can go everywhere and you can find people trying to do some trade on the street, some little commerce,” he explained. Some intrepid Haitians would, for example, travel to the north to purchase fruits that were not available in the west or south and then bring them to other regions. These options are now rare and becoming increasingly scarce.

These circumstances have prevented tourism to Haitians in the diaspora and within Haiti from taking place. “Haitians would be very happy to come to eat naturally, to enjoy the nice temperature we have in the country, and the sea, the mountains, and the ecological diversity. But we can’t activate it because of the instability.”

In Pierre’s assessment, the most important thing, even more important than saving a single sector like the garment sector, which is relatively new in Haiti, is gaining democratic political stability, which means an end to international interference and moving beyond Henry’s continuation of Moïse’s gang-plagued and autocratic governance.

“The solidarity you find in Haiti is a force of strength,” he said. “If we have political stability, people can live in this country, and even live well.”