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28457: (news) Chamberlain: Haiti's garment industry seeks relief (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

(LATimes, 17 June 06)

Haiti Seeks U.S. Tariff Relief for Garment Industry

The HOPE Act would create tens of thousands of jobs, proponents say.

By Carol J. Williams

PORT-AU-PRINCE ? Vladimir Fabre had what passes here for a decent-paying
job: work as a fabric roller at a factory making T-shirts for U.S. discount

But three years ago, Fabre, his mother and four of his siblings lost their
employment, thanks to rising political violence here and fierce competition
from Asia. The Fabres now eke out an existence by boiling a pot of rice and
beans each day and ferrying it to the garment-factory zone to sell to
Haitians still lucky enough to be working.

Jobs in the garment industry, once Haiti's most vital sector, have dropped
from 100,000 in the late 1980s to less than 20,000 today. In a country long
plagued by chronic unemployment of 50% to 70%, the apparel assembly sector
remains the nation's most important.

But manufacturers that have managed to survive, albeit by borrowing or
scaling back production, believe that recovery could be on the horizon. A
bill pending in the U.S. Congress would grant Haitian garment makers
duty-free entry to the U.S. market for apparel crafted from fabric made in
the U.S.

The bill, known as the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Through Partnership
Encouragement, or HOPE, Act, could create as many as 20,000 jobs within
four months of its passage, industry leaders say.

"When you lose your job in Haiti, the whole family suffers, because
everyone else is counting on you to help them," said Fabre, 30, as he set
up his lunch stand in the leafy industrial park, where the whine of sewing
machines now emanates from less than a third of the buildings.

The HOPE Act is a watered-down version of a humanitarian gesture drafted in
2004. That bill, which was known as the Haiti Economic Recovery
Opportunity, or HERO, Act, would have allowed all Haitian-made apparel
duty-free entrance to the U.S. market, whatever the origin of the cloth.
HERO was passed by the Senate but bogged down in the House, prompting
supporters of tariff relief for Haiti to bow to pressure from the U.S.
textile lobby and scale back their ambitions.

Haitian garment makers have been led to believe that action on the bill was
imminent, but unrelated Middle East trade issues have upended legislative
scheduling, said a congressional source who did not want to be identified
because negotiations on the matter are confidential.

A spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee, Ianthe Jackson, said
the timing of any debate on HOPE was unclear.

As recently as January, the few apparel manufacturers still in business in
Port-au-Prince were having to close sporadically because of gang violence
and riots in the slums that consume all but a few tiny enclaves in this
capital city.

"Every day you lose in a factory is a complete loss," said AG Textiles
owner Georges Sassine, noting that he has to pay employees even when
flaming barricades block their way to work. "It's not like commerce, where
if you have to close you'll sell tomorrow the sugar you didn't sell today."

Economists and foreign analysts have identified the garment industry as the
most promising for kick-starting an economy on its knees.

The Sonapi industrial park here once produced Major League baseballs,
brassieres and electronics. Now it is home almost exclusively to
manufacturers of knit garments. Contracts for the other products began
migrating to China in the 1980s and disappeared altogether during the
turmoil of the last two decades that saw a military coup, political strife,
assassinations and an armed rebellion that sent former President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide into a second exile in February 2004.

"We as an industry are the only ones who can create jobs quickly," said
Sassine, whose plant employs 600 people who make sweatshirts for Canadian
company Gildan Activewear Inc. "We just need to receive orders and execute
them. We have capacity that is not used or is underused."

He says he could hire 300 more workers if HOPE passes, based on an expected
boom in orders for the U.S. market.

Sassine's plant, like others doing business with Western countries, is
certified by the nonprofit group Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production
for maintaining accepted standards for garment workers, including regulated
hours, adequate ventilation and healthcare.

"Our customers want to know their goods are not being made in sweatshops or
with child labor," Sassine said. "This is our guarantee that the goods are
made by socially responsible factories."

He points to the lunchtime scene around the industrial park as evidence
that a boost for the garment industry would have a ripple effect in the
capital's economy. Outside the walled compound of giant assembly plants,
vendors display secondhand clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, housewares
and handicrafts, catering to those earning paychecks. At noon, dozens of
vendors like Fabre haul in crude wheeled carts carrying food and soft

Richard Coles, whose family owns the Multitex factory that produces 150,000
dozen T-shirts a week for customers such as Hanes, J.C. Penney Co., Sears,
Roebuck & Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., says the preferential trade terms
accorded by the HOPE Act would be a far more effective way for the U.S.
government to help the Haitian economy than foreign aid.

"It forces everyone to work and modernize to capitalize on it," he said of
the duty-free access.

Part of the legislation offers tariff relief on some clothing made of woven
fabrics, which Coles said would offer Haitian manufacturers an opportunity
to diversity the industry here, which is 90% knits. Working woven fabric is
more labor-intensive, he said, offering the prospect of more jobs and
higher revenues.

To sew a dozen T-shirts from knitted fabric, U.S. and Canadian apparel
companies pay Haitian factories $1.60 to $1.80 for the labor. To sew jeans
or trousers from woven cloth, manufacturers get $20 to $35 per dozen.

Coles said he trusted newly elected President Rene Preval's commitment to
help revive the garment industry, breaking with other business leaders who
have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the new government.

But even some business leaders who opposed Preval have become bullish on
the garment industry's outlook. Minimum wage in Haiti is less than $2 a
day, compared with more than $5 in the neighboring Dominican Republic and
most of Central America.

Jean-Edouard Baker, the older brother of an unsuccessful challenger to
Preval and a fellow garment maker until Aristide's loyalists burned down
his factories in February 2004, has drawn up plans for a free-trade zone in
the town of Croix-des-Bouquets, just east of the capital airport. The
current president of the Haitian Industrialists Assn., Baker accompanied
Preval on a March visit to Washington, where they lobbied congressional
leaders to pass the HOPE Act "to send a clear signal that Haiti is back
open for business."

Newly appointed Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis has promised to
streamline business-licensing procedures to make Haiti an attractive venue
for foreign manufacturers, Baker said. The new government is also working
to ensure a reliable supply of electricity and water to the existing
industrial park and to the site of the proposed free zone, he added.

In an analysis of the HERO and HOPE proposals, the Washington think tank
Inter-American Dialogue concluded that because the garment industry
"presents itself as one of few opportunities for growth and new employment
in an otherwise anemic economy," passage of one of the tariff relief
measures would be an effective way to aid Haiti.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also weighed in on the subject,
saying that "it is time to end Haiti's unmerited suffering" and urging
Congress to act before the summer recess.

"If the U.S. Congress would pass this HOPE bill, it would be a good thing
for the Haitian economy and would help Haiti recover some of what it has
lost" over the last 15 years to unrest and China, said Andre Apaid, who
owns five factories that produce 200,000 dozen T-shirts a week for export.

Revival of apparel manufacturing here would have a stabilizing effect and
would discourage Haitians from taking to the seas in flimsy boats in hopes
of reaching Florida or the Bahamas to find black-market employment, said
Jean Pierre Mangones, an official with the International Organization for
Migration. The IOM has been lobbying Washington to pass the HOPE Act to
convince Haitians that their best prospects might be at home.