U.S. BECKONS, BUT BUSINESSES RELUCTANT TO RETURN TO HAITI

Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — Clinton administration efforts to recruit U.S. apparel manufacturers to return to Haiti have been met mainly by resistance so far.
“If you’re going to ask us to be the chorus on Haiti, you have to give us something to cheer about. And right now, it’s not there,” said Peter Johnson, executive director of Caribbean/Latin American Action, following his return from a U.S.-sponsored trip there. C/LAA represents many U.S. apparel companies and other firms doing business in the Caribbean Basin.
Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State, led the March 7-8 mission, having recruited officials from various U.S. business sectors to discuss business opportunities in Haiti, as part of the administration’s plan to help rebuild that nation’s tattered economy.
Following two days of meetings in Port-au-Prince with Haitian leaders, including President Bertrand Aristide, Johnson said that “there was a lack of clarity about what is ‘the New Haiti’ we were told about” on the trip.
He said a Haitian commission of government, business and labor leaders responded that it will make recommendations about improvements, but no deadlines even for these was forthcoming.
“There are problems with the infrastructure: electricity that runs an hour a day, an unreal port situation, with telephones, roads, labor codes, licensing and security,” Johnson said. “Virtually all American companies have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.”
Currently, he said, about 5,000 people are employed in Haitian apparel assembly plants, down from about 100,000 in the late Eighties, when these plants produced about 18 percent of all U.S. apparel imports from Caribbean nations.
“If Haiti had followed the growth curve of other [Caribbean Basin Initiative] nations, there likely would be perhaps 500,000 people working on apparel assembly there today, but right now we mainly have questions,” Johnson added.
Andrew Postal, president of Judy Bond Inc., who also was on the Talbott mission, said the Clinton administration needs to back up its economic aims for Haiti with funding.
Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee after the trip, Postal said, “The White House and the State Department must bear the responsibility of providing the political will to find the resources within our government to assist Haiti in creating jobs — real, permanent jobs.”
He said that with the U.S. Agency for International Development no longer making loan guarantees for such Caribbean enterprises, the federal Overseas Private Investment Corp., along with Citibank and the Bank of Boston, are making a limited amount of working capital loans available to U.S. firms that set up operations in Haiti.
However, no funds appear forthcoming to make vital improvements on the infrastructure, including the main port, which is among the hemisphere’s worst, said Postal. Postal’s firm began operating in Haiti in the early Eighties and employed up to 600 workers in two plants.
Judy Bond scaled back operations in the early Nineties and had about 350 workers when it closed operations completely last May in the wake of the U.S. embargo.
Postal, who heads up the C/LLA’s Haiti Task Force, told legislators that should apparel assembly operations resume in Haiti, large-scale investments must be made to modernize existing plants so that they can compete with facilities found elsewhere in the CBI and Mexico.
Further clouding the situation, he said, is the fact that Caribbean apparel-producing nations do not have parity with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the GATT’s Uruguay Round “does away with the Multi-Fiber Arrangement and thus will unleash the Pacific Rim [apparel firms], adding a whole new level of competition for Haitian production.”
James G. Miller, vice president for international sourcing with H.H. Cutler Co., Minneapolis, a division of VF Corp., who also went on the mission, said Cutler is resuming limited assembly of infants’ and toddlers’ sweatsuits using Haitian contractors.
Miller, whose firm has assembly operations in the U.S., Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, said Haiti could be attractive for U.S. companies since its apparel workers “probably have the highest skill level and work ethics” in the region. Cutler, though, is waiting before it makes any decision to expand Haitian production or build its own facilities there.
Postal, whose firm assembles apparel in the U.S., Costa Rica, Mexico and the Far East, said it has made no decisions on resuming operations in Haiti.
— Fairchild News Service