By  on April 14, 2009

NEW YORK — Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis is looking to the apparel and textile sector to play a significant role in bringing her country back to prosperity.

The prime minister and a delegation of top Haitian officials gathered here Monday to highlight opportunities for investing and engaging in trade with the troubled Caribbean country. During their presentations, U.S. and Haitian officials touted substantial trade preferences Haiti has obtained through the Haitian Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act, or HOPE, that was passed by Congress in 2006. In 2008, provisions were added to the act in an effort to further simplify trade preference programs and encourage development. Those benefits, which include duty free status, lower labor costs and significantly reduced shipping times, will be in place for the next 10 years.

“There is no trade agreement that’s ever gone through my committee, or in history, that has been more liberal in terms of giving encouragement to investors than what we have done in Haiti,” said House Ways & Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) at the presentation.

Pierre-Louis said in an interview that she was looking to bring Haiti’s apparel and textile sector back to the levels it reached in the Eighties, when it was one of the leading textile employers in the Caribbean region.

“Job creation is of the essence,” said Pierre-Louis.

Haiti’s population of 9.5 million makes it the second most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the poorest, with 78 percent of people living below the U.S. poverty line of $2 a day. Currently, some 30 garment factories employ about 21,000 workers, but Pierre-Louis’s government has aggressive plans to grow that number.

“We hope that before the end of this year we may get to 60,000 to 80,000 [workers],” she said. “Our target is 200,000 to 250,000 before 2011.”

Pierre-Louis recognizes the dramatic impact this could have on the country. “When one person works, that means five to six people eat and their lives are improving,” the prime minister said. “This is very important to us.”

In addition to HOPE, Pierre-Louis said the government is working to create more industrial facilities, improve infrastructure and make it easier and faster for new businesses to get up and running. She also believes the government needs to play a more active role in changing the world’s perception of Haiti.

“We’ve been stereotyped and there are lots of clichés about Haiti,” she said. “I think the situation in some Caribbean countries is much worse than that of Haiti. Yet, we are labeled not only the poorest one, but also violent and corrupt.”

Pierre-Louis said the new government has moved to create legal institutions and regulations to fight corruption. She also noted that violence has been reduced significantly.

Major brands and retailers are already taking advantage of Haiti’s lower labor costs, duty free status and shortened delivery times. Levi Strauss & Co., VF Corp., Hanesbrands Inc. and Gap Inc. are among the companies utilizing the Codevi factory, located just steps away from Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic.

Fernando Capellan, president of Grupo M, which owns the facility, noted the factory utilizes fabric from the Dominican Republic, which also qualifies for trade preferences under HOPE. Finished goods are transported to Dominican ports in two hours and can reach Miami in as little as two days. Capellan said the Codevi factory currently employes 3,200 workers, but he expects that number to grow to between 7,000 and 8,000 in the next three years.

“I think with the HOPE legislation, Haiti has all the chances to win,” said Capellan. “With everything that is happening, I think Haiti has huge potential.”

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