At Factory in Haiti, Garment Work Becomes Lifeline

BY Ray Suarez  January 26, 2010 at 2:40 PM EDT

Here’s a crash course in Haitian economics:

Stores in the country’s biggest city are closed, and don’t appear ready to open very soon. Their employees and the employees of thousands of enterprises around the city haven’t been to work in weeks, and have little or no money left.

So even if the businesses open, no one has money to spend in them.

If the idea is that somebody had to make the first move to restart the virtuous cycle of work and spending by creating more work, the garment manufacturers are stepping up. They employee some 25,000 workers in and around Port-au-Prince, and watching their employees stream through the gates of an industrial park was a glorious contrast to the privation and misery we’ve seen so far since the earthquake.

One such factory is World Wide Apparel, owned by manufacturer and politician Charles Baker. His factory makes lab coats, surgical scrubs, baker’s whites, pharmacists jackets, coveralls, emergency services uniforms and so on. His workers cut pieces for assembly from large bolts of cloth in one room, and sew them together in massive hangar-like buildings. His factory saw anxious workers coming by last week, hoping the place would reopen soon. Even at between $5 and $6 a day, these workers have many hungry mouths depending on them, now more than ever.

One of Baker’s buildings was given a clean bill of health after multiple engineers’ inspections. The other needs some work, so a skeleton crew was in one, while the other was packed with workers.

They sewed, checked, folded, boxed and stacked, some chatting over the din of sewing machines. Off the top of his head, Baker figures his workers are in direct competition with assembly workers in a dozen other countries even with the low wages they are paid. Most of those countries are in Asia and Africa. This is work that lightly educated and skilled workers can do: Baker says he can fully train a sewing machine operator to put together a lab coat in a few days.

Money has simply stopped flowing through the Haitian economy in any meaningful way. Workers with no jobs have no wages. Workers who receive food handouts from international agencies spend no cash that can flow back into the economy. It’s as if the Haitian system has had a stroke … supplies of goods won’t appear in response to demand if there’s no money to spend. Demand won’t appear to drive supply until people have cash.

The banks have been closed. The remittance economy, the enormous receipts from the Haitian diaspora has also suffered a blockage as wire transfer agencies have been slow to open and slow to satisfy the enormous crowds that gather outside their doors for hours.

In response to the conditions in the neighborhoods where his 750 employees live, Baker is feeding his workers at the job site, and helping those who’ve lost everything locate clothing. He wishes the government would look at the tens of thousands of workers sewing T-shirts, ladies coats, and overalls in this part of Port-au-Prince as an efficient supply chain to get relief out to the poorest areas. Give my workers medicine and food at the job site, he says, and it would get out to those who need it very quickly.

World Wide Apparel’s customers have not cut or cancelled their orders. Cardboard boxes are filled all day with garments heading out to retail giants and well-known store chains, though Baker isn’t sure when these fresh-off-the-sewing-machine products will actually get to the United States — shipping is still at a standstill.

Soon, it might become clear whether the worldwide appetite for cheap garments will help accelerate the recovery of an economy that was suffering — yet showed signs of hope — before the quake.