Made in Haiti: “free” trade versus fair trade

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Free trade and the expansion of Haiti’s garment manufacturing industry are being promoted as a vehicle for economic development in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. Free trade, it is argued by lawmakers and corporations, produces a trickle-down effect: the creation of apparel manufacturing jobs will ease poverty and unemployment, improve living conditions, and even promote democracy and ease political disenfranchisement. Increasing corporate profits is seamlessly aligned with political and socio-economic development objectives.

These claims are contingent on the degradation of the term “free” in the context of the free market (Rogoff 2010), and on skewed understandings of “local” manufacturing. The term free trade suggests the free and unfettered movement of goods across international borders. Yet in reality, “free” trade is strictly and minutely regulated by a complex network of regional and international trade agreements. For example, trade preference levels govern duty-free benefits on apparel manufactured in specific countries, and can impose benefits or penalties worth millions of dollars at a time. Further, duty-free treatment for Haitian-made apparel is granted under very strict stipulations that are calculated based on, for example, the cost and origin of the fabric used to assemble the garments, and the country from which the garments are directly imported. As well, international quotas govern tariff designations worldwide, so that apparel manufactured in Haiti is granted duty-free status at the expense of apparel manufactured in another developing country. As Jane Collins observes, “To call these labyrinthine measures ‘free trade’ is to stretch the meaning of the term beyond recognition” (2003 p.52).

For Yannick Etienne, director of the Haitian workers rights’ organization Batay Ouvriye, “this model of development with free trade zones as its backbone for creating jobs is a failure. It creates wealth for the foreign investors and local factory owners but more misery for the workers” (Erkert Depp 2010). Garment workers in workers in CODEVI — Haiti’s only fully operational free-trade zone — earn less than many other Haitian workers because minimum wage laws don’t apply there. Free trade may spur job creation, however, those jobs remain low waged and precarious at the local level. Because the key actors in the global apparel industry are multinational corporations, they have no long-term commitment to the places where they operate — and so production and job creation remain mobile. While Haiti’s garment sector doubled to 25,000 workers between 2006 and 2009, it contracted overall from 100,000 employees in previous years, with those jobs having moved overseas to Asia.

The project Made in Haiti, initiated by artist Carole Frances Lung in 2009 and continuing today, also seeks to create jobs for garment workers in Haiti. MIH operates at a much smaller scale and on a more local level than do the multinational corporations currently operating in Haiti. Lung is a former garment worker whose art practice exposes the abuses of the global apparel industry through collaborative projects that harness sewing, skills sharing, and collaboration. Made in Haiti privileges a fair trade model for Haitian garment workers, investing in long-term relationships with Haitian workers, paying fair wages, and engaging in ethical modes of production.

The first iteration of Made in Haiti took place during the first Ghetto Biennale, held in Port-au-Prince in 2009. Lung collaborated with local tailors who used repurposed “pepe” or second hand clothing imported from the USA to create a small collection of garments and accessories, sold locally in Port-au-Prince and later, the USA. The Haitian tailors were paid a fair wage for their labor, and their creations sell on Etsy, at galleries and pop up shops in the USA, and at a dedicated shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. MIH was exhibited at the second Ghetto Biennale in 2011 as a pop up shop in Port-au-Prince. Currently, MIH works with a lead tailor, Jonas La Base (who brings in other workers to help him as needed), a translator, Junior Casseus, and two to three t-shirt embellishers. It recently completed a large order for artist Theaster Gates, and regularly exhibits at pop up shops around Los Angeles. MIH is in the process of recruiting investors and developing a larger product launch.

Made in Haiti promotes sustainable, local manufacturing as a viable alternative to free trade zones and the low-waged, precarious, and fleeting employment opportunities they offer workers in developing countries. As Collins (2003) notes, when garment workers enter into production, they bring along their own ideas of what is fair. Unlike the free trade model explored earlier, Made in Haiti supports local economic development and job creation in Haiti by tailoring its modes of production to local imperatives, rather than the other way around. MIH provides Haitian workers with a fair wage for their labor, together with agency in the production process. MIH invests in the local Haitian economy by ensuring that profits are channeled back to the workers who produced the garments in the first place. Fair labor practices provide the foundation for successful fair trade relations. As the Made in Haiti label proudly states: “100% Good for Garment Workers”.

Made in Haiti is one of a growing number of art projects that mobilize craft techniques — here, sewing — to resist late capitalist, post-Fordist modes of production. Antonio Gramsci, writing about the process of industrialization in the USA between the two world wars, notes a struggle that pitted “craft rights” against “industrial liberties”, as industrialists attempted to curb the labor unions that represented “the rights of qualified crafts” (1971, p.286). Gramsci’s notion of “craft rights”, continues to be relevant in the context of economic globalization and deregulation in the garment industry today, for it implies an understanding of “craft” and “rights” as implicitly linked to workers’ well being. The right to a fair wage and an adequate standard of living have yet to be achieved in the context of the industrial piecework system that dominates the global apparel industry. Made in Haiti provides an example of how “craft rights” — skilled and well-remunerated forms of labor — can replace the abuses of piecework. MIH also demonstrates that fair trade, not free trade, will spur true economic development in Haiti.

Works cited

  • Collins, Jane L., Threads: Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Garment Industry. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Erkert Depp, Alexis, “Made in Haiti: A Good Thing?” Washington Memo, November 2, 2010
  • Gramsci, Antonio, and Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith, Geoffrey, Eds., Selections From the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers Company, 1971
  • Rogoff, Irit, “Free”, e-flux journal #14 March 2010