Skip to content Skip to footer

International Interference in Haiti Is Crushing Its Garment Industry

An anticipated 20,000 garment-sector jobs may be on the chopping block by year’s end.

Factory workers demanding a pay rise demonstrate in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 23, 2022.

Even before Haiti’s unelected de facto and extremely unpopular Prime Minister Ariel Henry shocked an already economically burdened Haitian populace by announcing on September 11 that he was ending fuel subsidies (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 bullets, one of which 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. In mid-July, a major foreign apparel company operating in Haiti announced massive layoffs in the garment sector, passing along the pain of what they say has been a 45 percent reduction in orders from major U.S. customers such as Target, Walmart and The Gap to Haitian workers and their families. Other companies have also indicated that mass layoffs are likely, and industry insiders have predicted that an estimated 20,000 jobs could soon disappear, according to local reports. This represents over 34 percent of all workers in the garment industry, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of Haiti’s exports. Some factories, such as Go Haiti which 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.

That indignity, along with an inflation rate that was in excess of 22 percent making it impossible for Haitian workers to close the gap between their meager sweatshop earnings and the cost of basic human necessities, led to an industry-wide strike that won workers some modest gains: On February 21, the Superior Council on Wages acted to raise the minimum wage for garment worker to 770 gourdes (or $6.63 in U.S. currency) a day, which amounts to roughly half of what they were demanding. But with the rate of inflation now at 30.5 percent, those gains have been eroded and then some. In such desperate times, a job, even one that’s woefully compensated, is arguably better than no job at all.

Grassroots Unite in Opposition to Ariel Henry Continuing as De Facto Prime Minister

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 an 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 release, the labor law firm blames the proposed massive layoffs on the stranglehold that foreign business interests have on the garment sector. The firm points to a number of key formal legal mechanisms in loan and trade programs that have been disastrously imposed on Haiti over the years by The Core Group, the very same multinational supervisory body to which Ariel Henry answers. 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.”

In 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 Center who is living among, organizing with and talking to garment workers every day, says the nebulous 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 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 ruthless gang and police violence, people are sticking close to their neighborhoods where neighbors know each other, he says. 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.”

Those With the Means to Leave Are Exiting in Droves

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. Or they attempt to cross into the Dominican Republic, which has become openly and murderously hostile to Haitian workers. Even Dominican Black people have been slain there recently, because they 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.”

But having been trained on the sewing machines and having devoted their entire working lives to manufacturing apparel, many workers do not possess transferable skills, Pierre said, and have taken to peddling home-produced wares on the street. “You can go everywhere and you can find people trying to do some trade on the street, some little commerce,” he explained. Before the spike in gas prices, some intrepid Haitians, for example, would go to the north to buy fruits unavailable in the west and south, and bring them to the other regions for sale. But options like these are few, and are becoming increasingly foreclosed.

Even tourism marketed to Haitians living in the diaspora or internal to Haiti is stymied under the circumstances. “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.”