Coronavirus deepens Haiti’s unequal role in global garment supply chain
By Charlotte Hammond, Cardiff University.
At a time when so many of us have been forced to slow down, pause, and stay at home to save lives, garment workers at Haiti’s Caracol industrial park are expected to return to work on 20 April, following an announcement by Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe.
The reopening of textile factories across Haiti puts workers and their communities at risk, not to mention Haiti’s already fragile healthcare system.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the global fashion industry’s reliance on outsourcing production to peripheral sites in the global South, and the structural inequalities this perpetuates. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the fashion empire has ground to a halt.
In Haiti, it is the garment workers – workers at the bottom of the supply chain – who will suffer the most. Many have been left with no pay due to cancelled orders and factory shutdowns, or forced to work in high-risk conditions as factories reopen before the crisis has passed.
When asked about the reopening of textile factories across Haiti, Georges Sassine, factory owner and president of L’Association des industries d’Haïti (ADIH), the main organisation of Haiti’s manufacturing sector, has said:
“The question was whether to die of hunger or coronavirus.”
Haiti confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 on 19 March. One week later, Caracol industrial park, the US-sponsored export-processing zone in northern Haiti, was closed. This was one of a series of measures deployed by the Haitian government, including the closure of schools and churches, to prevent the spread of the virus.
In a letter addressed to workers on 3 April, S & H Global informed them that the 50% of their salary promised by the Haitian government had not yet arrived and would only constitute 50% of the already meagre 500 gourdes minimum wage, 5 US Dollars per 8 hour working day (already four times below the average cost of living in Haiti).
The Coronavirus has disrupted production at Caracol since its outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning of the year. S & H Global (SAE-A), Korean suppliers of US-based brands including Gap, Walmart, and Target, import most of their fabric from China. The company was therefore already dealing with delays and logistical issues before the virus reached Haiti.
Prioritising profits over the wellbeing of workers, the Korean textile supplier tenants at the park had originally issued the letter to announce that factory production would recommence on 13 April. While the company stated that government-advised health and safety measures would be implemented (the wearing of masks and hand-washing), local unions and international garment sector NGOs remain unconvinced that sufficient preventative measures against the virus will be enforced.
The Solidarity Center, along with four Haitian garment sector unions have called on the Haitian government to respect the Haitian Labour Code which stipulates workers receive pay when the government closes the workplace. In a letter to President Jovenel Moïse, the unions, including Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confédération des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs-euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye, also recommended support to informal workers, a halt on income tax, and a reallocation of carnival funds to support the COVID-19 measures.
Jean Francois Peguy Jonel, union leader of Caracol’s Sendika Ouvriye Vanyan S&H Global (SOVASHG), a regional branch of Batay Ouvriye, explained that the union remains firmly opposed to factories reopening during the crisis as:
“Mwayen transpò déjà mete vi nou an danje. Moun ki ap koud sou machin yo 1 mèt 5 la pa respekte. Ankò leta pa mete okenn mwayen dijans anka ta gen yon pwoblèm.”
“Transport to work already puts our lives in danger. For workers using sewing machines the 1.5 metre distance is not respected. On top of that the state has no emergency means in case of a problem.”
Despite paying income tax (IRI) and pension contributions (ONA), workers have heard nothing from Haiti’s Office d’Assurance Accidents du Travail, Maladie et Maternité (OFATMA) since the outbreak of the pandemic, and, in particular, pregnant women due to begin maternity leave have not yet received any maternity pay nor any form of communication from the state.
Caracol Garment Workers at Risk
Of the 50,000 garment workers currently employed in Haiti, approximately 12,700 work at Caracol. Many of the workers live in Cap-Haïtien and spend an hour crammed into overcrowded buses to reach the park. Within the factory itself, the industrial sewing machines are arranged to fit as many in the space as possible, and workers have no choice but to carry out tasks in close proximity with one another.
In a series of interviews I conducted with women garment workers at Caracol in 2017, some complained about respiratory problems caused by poor ventilation conditions in the factories there. Without suitable measures in place to protect workers, these conditions make for easy transmission of the virus.
Factory workers in communities around Caracol, largely removed from the recent political lockdown that has paralysed the country, live in densely populated areas. These overcrowded conditions increase the risk of transmission of viruses. In the recent past these have included zika and the cholera epidemic introduced by UN workers sent to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. For these workers social distancing and handwashing are already a scarcely afforded privilege.
Im/mobility of People and Things
On 28 March, the Haitian Government authorised certain factories to reopen in order to produce medical scrubs and masks for export. The factories to open were those already producing medical equipment for overseas, including Quantum, Cleveland and InterAmerican Woven run by the Apaid Group, and Dominican-owned CODEVI, located in Ouanaminthe, at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, that reopened three of its factories on 6 April.
The garment sector in Haiti is a tax-free system defined by foreign companies who extract wealth, leaving what little economic benefit is generated to the local elite. The majority of personal protection equipment (PPE) manufactured will be exported to the United States, despite medical professionals in Haiti who severely lack the resources and facilities to tackle the pandemic.
Textiles protect people and things against contamination from external threats, whilst facilitating mobility and social contact between people, and between people and things. The absorbency, permeability and portability of textiles also makes them the ideal carrier of (narratives of) infection. See for example laws (458/991) in the Dominican Republic prohibiting the import of used textiles (mattresses, pillows, or clothing) from neighbouring Haiti to prevent the entrance of disease. The laws represent racist narratives of infection and have been periodically enforced to curb the movement of Haitians across the border into the Dominican Republic (including during the 2010 cholera outbreak).
These fears of migratory flows are masked by a persistent association between textiles, contagion, and foreign migration.
Those privileged to fly in and out of the Caribbean region with relative ease, who helped spread the virus via their hypermobility, are now forced to stay still. Meanwhile, garment workers in Haiti have no choice but to keep productive and moving to ensure that commodities and capital flow freely and quickly across the intermittently invisible border with the US.
Given the history of colonial containment of enslaved black bodies in motion and the stereotype of Haitians as always moving (never sleeping) labouring bodies, this uneven mobility is all too familiar.