Haiti’s not so far away

Maybe you don’t want to hear about Jacqueline, a Haitian woman who gets paid the Haitian equivalent of around $2 a day to sew zippers on 90 dozen pairs of uniform pants. In Haiti, the cost of living is said to be triple the minimum wage—estimated at around 25 cents an hour.

Of course, you can live on less in Haiti—if you’re willing to live in a shack (no electricity or plumbing) and drink unsanitary water. Supervisors where Jacqueline works, Haitian American Apparel Co. S.A., provide a tub of water for workers to drink in their dusty, furnace-like factory.

Jacqueline, a 42-year-old mother of four, lives in an urban slum outside Port au Prince, Haiti. Or she lived there last year when interviewed for a story posted at BehindTheLabel.org. Given Haitian unrest, it’d be hard to tell where the family is today.

Say what you want about the North American Free Trade Agreement providing jobs for people like Jacqueline. But empowering multinational corporations with the ability to set minimum wages and working standards for an entire nation hasn’t helped the majority of Haitians.

On Sunday, Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide left his island nation. Some accuse him of poor leadership and human-rights violations. (And drug dealing, among other things.) Others lament the loss of a leader who may have had hopes for his people, but whose hands were tied by the very government that had installed him—the United States.

When the United States (Clinton administration) reinstalled Aristide as Haiti’s leader in 1994—same year NAFTA was enacted—it also laid down the law: Aristide must accept conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Haitian leader was compelled to maintain the lowest minimum wage in Latin America and to provide other happy incentives to U.S. factories in Haiti.

Sure, a few whiners complained a year or two later when Disney set up Haitian sweatshops in which workers were paid pennies to produce Pocahontas T-shirts.

But we kind of stopped paying attention.

U.S. companies keep expanding in Haiti. Levi Strauss closed its North American plants and set up shop in Haiti last year. Plans are in the works for more garment factories, like Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Hanes.

Here’s a note of interest: Jacqueline and workers at Haitian American say they sew labels for a major U.S. uniform manufacturer on the clothes they craft. That uniform company, Cintas Corp., has a distribution center in Sparks. Cintas says it has no relationship with Haitian American. It sues publications that’ve stated a connection exists. So we’ll make no such implication here.

Cintas has enough troubles (class action suits, etc.) in the United States. In December, the Las Vegas Sun reported that the company, the largest U.S. supplier of uniforms to airlines and hotels, had been charged by the National Labor Relations Board of violating federal labor laws in four states, including Nevada. The company allegedly tried to prevent its employees from joining a union. The case goes to court in April.

Hooray for protecting U.S. workers’ rights—for now.

What will happen, though, when even more U.S. jobs go away? When our country’s vast debts are called in, will we be forced to lower wage standards, to accept crappier working conditions, reduced health benefits? Oh wait. We already have.

Bottom line: Government-assisted, pro-corporate “free” trade means fewer jobs for U.S. laborers who demand a living wage and more jobs for workers who’ve no choice but to accept living in squalor.

Almost everyone loses. Someone will profit, but it’s not Jacqueline—or the half-million garment workers out of work in the United States.