Vladimir Fabre had what passes here for a decent-paying job: work as a fabric roller at a factory making T-shirts for U.S. discount stores.
But three years ago, Fabre, his mother and four of his siblings lost their employment, thanks to rising political violence here and fierce competition from Asia. The Fabres now eke out an existence by boiling a pot of rice and beans each day and ferrying it to the garment-factory zone to sell to Haitians still lucky enough to be working.
Jobs in the garment industry, once Haiti's most vital sector, have dropped from 100,000 in the late 1980s to less than 20,000 today. In a country long plagued by chronic unemployment of 50% to 70%, the apparel assembly sector remains the nation's most important.
But manufacturers that have managed to survive, albeit by borrowing or scaling back production, believe that recovery could be on the horizon. A bill pending in the U.S. Congress would grant Haitian garment makers duty-free entry to the U.S. market for apparel crafted from fabric made in the U.S.
The bill, known as the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Through Partnership Encouragement, or HOPE, Act, could create as many as 20,000 jobs within four months of its passage, industry leaders say.
"When you lose your job in Haiti, the whole family suffers, because everyone else is counting on you to help them," said Fabre, 30, as he set up his lunch stand in the leafy industrial park, where the whine of sewing machines now emanates from less than a third of the buildings.
The HOPE Act is a watered-down version of a humanitarian gesture drafted in 2004. That bill, which was known as the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity, or HERO, Act, would have allowed all Haitian-made apparel duty-free entrance to the U.S. market, whatever the origin of the cloth. HERO was passed by the Senate but bogged down in the House, prompting supporters of tariff relief for Haiti to bow to pressure from the U.S. textile lobby and scale back their ambitions.
Haitian garment makers have been led to believe that action on the bill was imminent, but unrelated Middle East trade issues have upended legislative scheduling, said a congressional source who did not want to be identified because negotiations on the matter are confidential.
A spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee, Ianthe Jackson, said the timing of any debate on HOPE was unclear.
As recently as January, the few apparel manufacturers still in business in Port-au-Prince were having to close sporadically because of gang violence and riots in the slums that consume all but a few tiny enclaves in this capital city.
"Every day you lose in a factory is a complete loss," said AG Textiles owner Georges Sassine, noting that he has to pay employees even when flaming barricades block their way to work. "It's not like commerce, where if you have to close you'll sell tomorrow the sugar you didn't sell today."
Economists and foreign analysts have identified the garment industry as the most promising for kick-starting an economy on its knees.
The Sonapi industrial park here once produced Major League baseballs, brassieres and electronics. Now it is home almost exclusively to manufacturers of knit garments. Contracts for the other products began migrating to China in the 1980s and disappeared altogether during the turmoil of the last two decades that saw a military coup, political strife, assassinations and an armed rebellion that sent former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into a second exile in February 2004.
"We as an industry are the only ones who can create jobs quickly," said Sassine, whose plant employs 600 people who make sweatshirts for Canadian company Gildan Activewear Inc. "We just need to receive orders and execute them. We have capacity that is not used or is underused."
He says he could hire 300 more workers if HOPE passes, based on an expected boom in orders for the U.S. market.
Sassine's plant, like others doing business with Western countries, is certified by the nonprofit group Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production for maintaining accepted standards for garment workers, including regulated hours, adequate ventilation and healthcare.
"Our customers want to know their goods are not being made in sweatshops or with child labor," Sassine said. "This is our guarantee that the goods are made by socially responsible factories."
He points to the lunchtime scene around the industrial park as evidence that a boost for the garment industry would have a ripple effect in the capital's economy. Outside the walled compound of giant assembly plants, vendors display secondhand clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, housewares and handicrafts, catering to those earning paychecks. At noon, dozens of vendors like Fabre haul in crude wheeled carts carrying food and soft drinks.
Richard Coles, whose family owns the Multitex factory that produces 150,000 dozen T-shirts a week for customers such as Hanes, J.C. Penney Co., Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., says the preferential trade terms accorded by the HOPE Act would be a far more effective way for the U.S. government to help the Haitian economy than foreign aid.
"It forces everyone to work and modernize to capitalize on it," he said of the duty-free access.
Part of the legislation offers tariff relief on some clothing made of woven fabrics, which Coles said would offer Haitian manufacturers an opportunity to diversity the industry here, which is 90% knits. Working woven fabric is more labor-intensive, he said, offering the prospect of more jobs and higher revenues.
To sew a dozen T-shirts from knitted fabric, U.S. and Canadian apparel companies pay Haitian factories $1.60 to $1.80 for the labor. To sew jeans or trousers from woven cloth, manufacturers get $20 to $35 per dozen.
Coles said he trusted newly elected President Rene Preval's commitment to help revive the garment industry, breaking with other business leaders who have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the new government.
But even some business leaders who opposed Preval have become bullish on the garment industry's outlook. Minimum wage in Haiti is less than $2 a day, compared with more than $5 in the neighboring Dominican Republic and most of Central America.
Jean-Edouard Baker, the older brother of an unsuccessful challenger to Preval and a fellow garment maker until Aristide's loyalists burned down his factories in February 2004, has drawn up plans for a free-trade zone in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets, just east of the capital airport. The current president of the Haitian Industrialists Assn., Baker accompanied Preval on a March visit to Washington, where they lobbied congressional leaders to pass the HOPE Act "to send a clear signal that Haiti is back open for business."
Newly appointed Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis has promised to streamline business-licensing procedures to make Haiti an attractive venue for foreign manufacturers, Baker said. The new government is also working to ensure a reliable supply of electricity and water to the existing industrial park and to the site of the proposed free zone, he added.
In an analysis of the HERO and HOPE proposals, the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue concluded that because the garment industry "presents itself as one of few opportunities for growth and new employment in an otherwise anemic economy," passage of one of the tariff relief measures would be an effective way to aid Haiti.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also weighed in on the subject, saying that "it is time to end Haiti's unmerited suffering" and urging Congress to act before the summer recess.
"If the U.S. Congress would pass this HOPE bill, it would be a good thing for the Haitian economy and would help Haiti recover some of what it has lost" over the last 15 years to unrest and China, said Andre Apaid, who owns five factories that produce 200,000 dozen T-shirts a week for export.
Revival of apparel manufacturing here would have a stabilizing effect and would discourage Haitians from taking to the seas in flimsy boats in hopes of reaching Florida or the Bahamas to find black-market employment, said Jean Pierre Mangones, an official with the International Organization for Migration. The IOM has been lobbying Washington to pass the HOPE Act to convince Haitians that their best prospects might be at home.