12 Apr Unfolding Haiti’s Garment Industry: Decades of Unaccountable Foreign Interference
[Sandra Wisner is a senior staff lawyer with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a U.S. human rights organization, working in partnership with the Haiti-based public interest law firm the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). Kristina Fried is a lawyer and Bertha Justice fellow with IJDH.]
At first glance, the garment workers’ protests sweeping Haiti appear to be the result of a grossly inadequate minimum wage. But listen closely to the organizers and you will see they are rooted in decades of rights violations perpetrated by foreign states’ approach to investment in Haiti. Foreign actors must be held accountable to their legal obligations both for the harm they have caused and to ensure that future investment in Haiti is fair and sustainable.
Making Haiti the New Garment Capital
The U.S. and others have for decades championed the expansion of Haiti’s garment manufacturing industry. In the 1980s, international financial institutions and the U.S. imposed a series of loans conditioned on economic reforms that destroyed Haiti’s agricultural sector along with the livelihoods of its farming families. These policies ultimately facilitated the replacement of critical subsistence agriculture in Haiti with a garment industry that exploits cheap labour and prioritizes foreign interests over long-term, rights-based development. In the early 1990s, the UN and the Organization of American States even made an exception to their trade embargo against Haiti’s dictatorial military regime to allow trade for assembly manufacture. In the 2000s, through a number of trade agreements, the U.S. created a steady market for raw material exports to Haiti from the U.S. and made it very cheap for U.S. companies to import apparel manufactured in Haiti. Free trade zones, established by the Haitian government but heavily incentivized by IFI funding, further cemented foreign actors’ unfettered access to the Haitian market and cheap labour by allowing domestic and foreign companies to import, produce, and re-export goods with trade incentives.
Built on the promise of more jobs and better economic prospects, the garment industry – which as the country’s core export industry accounts for 90% of all exports – has resulted instead in widespread workers’ rights violations and exacerbated existing severe food insecurity. One particularly prominent example of the international community’s support for Haiti’s apparel industry is Caracol Industrial Park (CIP), a huge industrial park in Haiti’s north primarily funded by the U.S. and the Inter-American Development Bank after the country’s 2010 earthquake. The Park’s financers claimed it would bring economic growth and 65,000 new jobs, which former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised would “adhere to international labor standards.”
Workers’ Rights Violations and Foreign Complicity
These policies and initiatives failed to provide the tens of thousands of jobs promised or generate enough export revenue to fund the country’s struggling social sector. The U.S. trade agreements brought in American companies like Val D’Or Apparel and 99 Degrees, who outsourced their manufacturing facilities to Haiti. But they never brought about the economic development promised – as of 2021, only 14,000 of the 65,000 jobs that CIP promised to create have materialized, and Haiti has continued to operate at an average US$3 billion trade deficit for the last ten years.
Instead, as our colleagues at the Haitian Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) observed first-hand while working to obtain redress for workers in Haitian courts, this apparel industry brought allegations of workers’ rights violations, including workplace sexual harassment, benefits theft, and polluting waste. According to the International Labour Organization’s Better Work Program, garment companies throughout Haiti have repeatedly been found to violate Haitian and international labour laws. Val D’or Apparel closed in late January without compensating workers, who claimed “slave-like treatment.” In 2020, a letter written by a group of U.S. congresspeople highlighted the “particularly egregious” failure of 62 U.S. companies importing from Haiti – thanks to U.S. trade agreements – to “comply with health insurance and social security contribution requirements.” The industry also has a history of illegally firing workers who unionize – Palm Apparel S.A., a Haitian apparel manufacturing company that supplies Canadian corporation GILDAN, fired dozens of union members in 2020.
The U.S. government is also directly complicit in Haiti’s inadequate minimum wage for garment workers, which violates international standards respecting fair wages. In the early 1990s, a National Labor Committee report exposed how the U.S. – in concert with Haiti’s business elite – leveraged its power to block former President Aristide’s planned minimum wage increase. Then in 2009, the Obama administration worked with factory owners and clothing corporations to prevent the Haitian government’s attempt to raise the minimum wage to approximately U.S. 61 cents per hour. According to a series of documents published by WikiLeaks, thanks to U.S. intervention, the Haitian government ultimately only raised the minimum wage to a paltry 31 cents per hour – far below the US$12.50 per day needed to survive.
Prioritizing Profit Over Food Security
Foreign actors, by funding initiatives like CIP, have further undercut Haiti’s agricultural self-sufficiency and compounded extreme food insecurity by encouraging the Haitian government to convert huge swaths of fertile land to factories or other export industries. CIP displaced approximately 4,000 subsistence farmers. Despite tremendous efforts by impacted communities and civil society allies, those farmers still have not been compensated for the loss of their land and livelihoods, in accordance with their rights.
Another salient example is the establishment in February 2020 of a free trade zone across 8,600 hectares in the Savane-Diane territory, which dispossessed over a hundred families of their land. The free trade zone will be used by Stevia Agro Industrie S.A., an agribusiness owned by the wealthy Apaid family, to farm stevia. The stevia will most certainly be exported, likely to the U.S. for use by companies like Coca-Cola – one of the largest stevia purchasers. Meanwhile, Haitians have been asking the government to prioritize national production in the agriculture sector to promote the country’s food sovereignty, increase employment, and lower the cost of living.
As Haitians’ land is being seized and their rights violated, foreign corporations are benefiting. At least 62 U.S. companies have their garments assembled in Haiti at great profit, including Gap, Old Navy, H&M, JCPenney, Zara and Walmart, which is the biggest customer of CIP’s largest employer, as well as Canadian corporation GILDAN, one of the largest importers from Haitian garment factories.
Foreign States Are Not Above the Law
To be sure, foreign investment is critical for Haiti’s development. But much existing investment has failed to achieve the economic growth it promises, and instead harms those whose lives it claims to improve. Nor does it comply with international law.
Foreign investment is subject to states’ international legal obligations. States – including the U.S. – have extraterritorial obligations that require them to respect and protect economic, social and cultural rights abroad and to take “joint and separate action” to achieve respect for, and observance of, universal human rights. The latter obligation is widely understood to confer on states, particularly those in the global north, a duty to ensure that international assistance is provided in accordance with global human rights principles.
Garment workers have several core international legal rights within this framework. These rights – enshrined within general anti-discrimination principles – include the right to a “fair wage” that allows workers “an adequate standard of living;” to form and join trade unions; to not be arbitrarily deprived of employment; and to a safe work environment. Finally, workers – and those displaced by factories – have the right to a healthy environment, and are guaranteed protections against forced evictions.
Foreign states have violated these obligations through direct interference – such as the U.S. government’s repeated efforts to block proposed minimum wage increases – and the decades-long imposition of economic reforms and trade agreements that allow foreign corporations to facilitate and benefit from workers’ rights abuses. Foreign corporations, enabled by foreign-imposed trade incentives, continue to buy apparel manufactured in factories – often themselves owned or operated by foreign companies – that have been shown again and again to not meet minimum international labour standards.
But even where states acknowledge their own failures – as Bill Clinton did in 2010, noting the disastrous consequences of his administration’s economic policies on Haiti’s agricultural self-sufficiency – and in the face of garment workers’ recurrent demands for a living wage, no repercussions ensue. The lack of accountability for international actors – due in part to the barriers in enforcing these extraterritorial obligations – illustrates how they operate above the law. At the same time, foreign corporations remain largely unscathed and redress for victims is scarce. For example, there is no evidence that foreign companies who import Haitian garments from factories that violate workers’ rights have ever lost the benefits provided by U.S. trade agreements. Moreover, years after being displaced by CIP, farmers are still waiting for compensation.
Under the guise of development, foreign actors have pursued and benefited from the sweatshop environment that Haiti faces today, and in doing so fostered the continued exploitation of Haitian workers. These workers are not just protesting the symptoms of this environment – low wages and other rights violations – but the entire system of exploitation itself. In order to respect and protect Haitians’ human rights, foreign investment must reflect a Haitian-led, rights-based approach that is in line with international legal standards.