By  on September 20, 2011

NEW YORK — The apparel industry is playing a crucial role in helping to rebuild Haiti less than two years after a devastating earthquake brought ruin to the impoverished Caribbean country.

Former President Bill Clinton unveiled several initiatives through the Clinton Global Initiative Monday night to help rebuild the island nation, including an $85 million investment from South Korean manufacturer Sae-A Trading Corp. to be the anchor in the new 617-acre Northern Industrial Park free trade zone, where it aims to create 20,000 jobs.

Other programs include a collaboration between Nomad Two Worlds and Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation to launch an $180,000 initiative to create sustainable employment opportunities for Haitian artists and spur art-inspired tourism.

“I can’t say enough about Donna Karan,” Clinton told the audience at the CGI annual meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on Seventh Avenue here. “She’s been my friend for 20 years and she makes me look like I am passive in my passion for Haiti.”

Clinton said Sae-A’s decision to build its apparel factory represents “the biggest investment commitment in the history of Haiti. It will include the first textile mill in the history of the country.

“Sae-A went from donating 100,000 articles of clothing right after the earthquake to soon becoming one of the largest employers in the country,” said Clinton. “Even though it went through a terrible tragedy, this is the best opportunity for Haiti in my lifetime to build a society and a country worthy of its people.”

Clinton asked Sae-A chairman Woong-Ki Kim why he and his company would choose to invest in Haiti.

“Haiti’s close proximity to the U.S. gives it the advantage of shorter delivery times when nowadays speed-to-market is so important,” said Kim, speaking through an interpreter. “Haiti has an abundant and motivated labor supply and this is critical to a manufacturing operation that will employ thousands of workers. Haiti’s preferential trade agreement with the U.S. gives our U.S.-based customers duty free entry.”

Kim was referring to the duty free Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity for Partnership Encouragement Act, or HOPE, which provides duty free access to the U.S. market.

Sae-A’s six-year plan will begin with 20 lines and employ 1,500 people by this time next year, eventually growing to 240 lines employing 20,000 people. Initial factory operations will begin with cutting, sewing and packing, followed by garment washing, printing and embroidery, concluding with vertical integration of a fabric mill where fabric will be knitted and dyed.

Kim said the commitments and support from the U.S. and Haitian governments and the Inter-American Development Bank were instrumental in his decision to make the investment, as well as some timely phone calls from Clinton.

Haitian President Michel Martelly said following Sae-A’s commitment, he anticipates other apparel companies will follow. He said the U.S. has invested $124 million in the new park to construct 5,000 houses, build an electric grid, and waste and water treatment plants, while the IDK has committed $100 million for building and rooms. Haiti also aims to replicate the HOPE Act in other markets such as Brazil.

“We need to create jobs in Haiti and to do that we need investors,” Martelly said. “I also understand the need to restore the rule of law and I will guarantee to every investor in Haiti that the state will stand by you and protect you. Haiti is not just open for business, but we have new leadership and we are ready for you to come to Haiti and bring sustainable development.”

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