Long before the cobblestone streets of Tribeca and SOHO were the playgrounds of the denizens of the art world and high finance, the industrial redbrick buildings of these Manhattan neighborhoods housed garment factories. My mother worked at Luxury Braids, where they manufactured embroidery for dresses, sandals and other clothing.
I would visit her at the job occasionally and this is where she would remind me that unless I excelled in school, her fate awaited me. Although she never said it, her understanding of America was that if you don’t have a good education, you’re bound to live in the margins of society, no matter what social status you enjoyed in Haiti.
By the early 1980s, factories like Luxury Braids would be emptying out of lower Manhattan as the early signs of gentrification began to appear, although no one thought the transformation would be as drastic as it is today.
It was no longer profitable for these factories to operate in New York City, so many of them moved to southern states like South Carolina and Georgia, among others. A decade later, these same jobs would be shipped to parts of Asia as factory owners continued their chase for profitability.
Now China, the country chosen to be the world’s factory, has also outlived its usefulness and is rather expanding its capacity to compete with the U.S. in Artificial Intelligence, semiconductors and space exploration.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the folly of having one region producing the bulk of the stuff that we need in the world. The model of always chasing the cheaper alternative doesn’t work when life gets disrupted, as we discovered since Covid-19 became a pandemic in 2020.
Where Haiti comes in
So, as China is looking to dump its low-wage factories and as the world looks to diversify its supply chain production, Haiti should position itself as an alternative. Haiti should make a concerted attempt to attract factories as a way to fight its way out of the deep poverty that has gripped the country for most of its existence as a republic.
In many ways, Haiti is set up to expand its textile industry and enter other light manufacturing production. On March 19, 2007, Congress passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE), which gives Haiti’s apparel industry trade preferences and duty-free access to the U.S. market for Haitian textile. These preferences are scheduled to expire on September 30, 2025.
After the 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government, with the aid of the United States Agency for International Development and a Korean conglomerate, built the Caracol Industrial Park in Northern Haiti to increase its garment and light manufacturing jobs.
Fighting gangs with factories
However, a lawlessness the likes of which we’ve never seen in modern times is destabilizing the country. To make matters worse, president Jovenel Moise is deeply unpopular and is unable to govern effectively.
Come next year, Moise and his administration will be out because he cannot run for a consecutive second term. That means he will pass the presidential sash to another person who will have the arduous task of putting back together this zenglen, or splintered, country. While some experts drool over the prospect of Haiti’s beaches being lined with sun-seeking tourists, I believe that light manufacturing and textile is the way to get things going.
Companies are now seriously considering an alternative to China and Asia as a hub of production. Haiti should get in front of the line, wooing these companies to build factories in the provinces outside of Port-au-Prince, the capital. As people fan across the mountainous nation finding work, the economic engine would rev up.
Slowly, but surely, young men who find dignified jobs would eventually drop their weapons for a chance to feed their families and leave the street gang life behind.
Of course, the jobs will not catapult Haiti to a modernized industrial nation. But Haiti’s leaders can insist on livable wages. With the HOPE Act, companies pay no taxes to export their products to the U.S., so there would be no reason not to pay people a decent salary.
The infrastructure already exists, particularly in the garment sector. I remember when I lived in Fontamara, there was a factory that manufactured baseballs used by Major League Baseball (MLB), other leagues throughout the U.S. and teams all over the world where baseball is played. Those Fontamara factories closed up shop years ago.
But they can come back.
The labor unions – yes, they have them in Haiti – would need to play a central role in protecting workers’ rights and ensure that workers are respected and not abused, as is common in the garment industry in Asia.
Once Haiti’s employment decreases and the government’s coffers are such that they are able to pay civil servants their salaries regularly, the next task would be to focus on expanding infrastructures such as roads, electricity and internet connectivity. Once all of them are in place, then officials can study the tourism option.
The pandemic has shown us that an over-reliance on tourism is not a smart strategy. While tourism is a sexy industry, it is vulnerable to so many things — natural disasters, economic recession and civil unrest — that are at times beyond people’s control.
So the U.S. northeast used manufacturing as an economic development strategy. Then, those jobs shifted to the south when it became too expensive only to be shipped overseas, primarily in Asia.
Now, Haiti can make a play for companies looking to produce their goods closer to the United States. It wouldn’t be the end-all, be-all, but it’d be a good start. Let’s go for it. It’s better than what we have now.