Haiti has had a miserable last few years. In 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the already poor country, killing more than 160,000, displacing nearly 1.5 million, and starting a reconstruction effort that continues today. Then this October, Hurricane Matthew swept through the Caribbean, killing over 1,000 people and ripping homes, vegetation, and the country’s infrastructure from the ground. More than a million people are left needing food, clean water, and medicine, as disease spreads in the midst of a cholera epidemic.
Disasters like these are compounded by endemic poverty. Haiti, born from a 1791 slave revolution, was hobbled from the beginning when France, its former colonial overlord, forced the world’s first black republic at gunpoint to pay extortionate reparations for winning its own freedom. Haiti has been the venue of constant Western intervention ever since, including a 1915 invasion by the United States.
This legacy continues. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011 show that companies like Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom colluded with the US Embassy in Haiti to block a proposed increase in the minimum wage in 2009. Hillary Clinton was running the State Department at the time. Haitian workers currently earn a minimum wage of 225 gourdes a day, after successfully raising the wage in 2014. Today that equates to US$3.40.
Caracol Industrial Park is one of the places paying this wage. The park is a $300 million manufacturing center created in 2012 through a joint venture of the Haitian government, the US State Department, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Clinton Foundation. Both Bill and Hillary were personally involved at every step of its development and flew down for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Today, the park is held up as a success story by both the US government and the Clinton Foundation itself. Workers now earn around twenty-five cents per day more than they did two years ago thanks to a pay raise. Yet due to a decline in the gourde’s value, Caracol Industrial Park workers earn less than four dollars a day. And while teams sometimes receive small commissions of around eighty cents per day, federal and work taxes for water and toilet paper erode this wage further. I traveled to Caracol in August 2014 and April 2016 to see for myself how workers survive on these meager wages.
The park’s founders often tout its supposed economic benefits to locals, including the projected creation of up to sixty-five thousand jobs over ten years. What they don’t mention is that these benefits are built on land that once provided a livelihood for hundreds of local farmers.
Jean-Louis, eighty-five, is one of more than three hundred farmers in Caracol whose land was seized by the Haitian government to make way for the construction of factories. Where fertile land once served to grow corn that Jean-Louis could sell at the market, there now stand garment factories providing low-wage jobs for Haitian workers, and fueled by the West’s demand for cheap consumer products.
Farmers like Jean-Louis had no choice in the matter and were compensated for their land, but still struggle to survive. They are unable to find jobs at the factory as they are generally too old. Despite his age, Jean-Louis still keeps cattle and works for farmers who still have land.
“They said I had to [sell the land], because everyone else was,” explains Duvales Paul, another farmer. “There were helicopters above us, looking at us and the land.” Helicopters are a rare sight for Paul and other farmers, who are used to seeing them only when military action is under way.
The majority of farmers I spoke to said they would not have sold their land willingly, and are now at a similar or worse level of poverty than before the seizure.
During my most recent trip to Haiti, I stayed in the town of Limonade with a family of three: Daphne, her husband Renold, and their daughter Stephanie. Daphne is a garment worker at a Caracol Park factory. Renold was a construction worker before losing his arm in a bus accident. While he is sometimes able to find work supervising construction, Daphne brings in the majority of the family’s money.
Renold’s hospital bills, and his subsequent inability to find consistent work, put extreme financial pressure on the family. While a living wage in Haiti for a family of three is around $23 a day, Daphne, Renold, and Stephanie fall well under this. They live in an unfinished two-room home which, once completed, will have neither running water nor indoor cooking facilities. The family will forego electricity because they won’t be able to afford the bill. At night, they battle punishing heat and swarms of mosquitoes.
For food, the family substitutes the more nourishing rice and beans — for which they can only occasionally scrape together money — with cheap crops like mangoes and sugarcane. They rarely eat three full meals a day. Despite not always being able to send Stephanie to school or even feed her, the family is still better off than many sole-breadwinner households, and generously shared their meals — generally bananas boiled in fish sauce — with me and my translator Louines.
The difficulty of getting to work adds yet another obstacle for workers in Caracol. Each day, Daphne gets up at 5:45 AM, puts on makeup, and by 6 AM is out the door, running to catch the bus she and dozens of other workers take to get to the park. These buses are often dangerously overcrowded. Renold lost his arm because he was hanging onto the bus on his way home from work. Transportation can add yet one more cost to workers’ already precarious lives. While buses are free, if weather, protests, or other incidents mean the bus doesn’t come, workers like Daphne have to pay upwards of G100 (US$1.55) out of their G240 (US$3.73) salary to get to work by motorcycle. This happened twice in the two weeks I stayed with the family. While the cost is steep, it’s worth it. Missing work means not only a loss of a full day’s wages, but also the loss of Sunday’s wages, a bonus workers receive for making it to every other day of work.
Schools in Haiti are not free. Virtually all are private and can charge as much as $180 a year for primary education tuition and $400 for secondary education, far out of reach for most Haitians. That doesn’t even include the cost of items like books and uniforms.
Kalos, Daphne and Renold’s sixteen-year-old neighbor, is unable to attend school because he doesn’t own a pair of shoes, which cost around eight dollars at the local market. For most Haitians, who live on less than two dollars a day, this is more than half of a week’s wages. To make up for this, Kalos spends his free time tutoring and being tutored by other children in the neighborhood.
About five miles from Limonade is S&H School. The school houses two plaques that feature endorsements from both Clintons. It was set up by Sae-A Trading, a Korean textile and garment manufacturer that is Caracol Industrial Park’s main tenant and a Clinton Foundation donor. The company, which exported $1.8 billion worth of products in 2014, supplies clothing to stores like Walmart and Gap.
Shifts at the Sae-A factory are six days a week, eight hours a day. With transportation included, Daphne’s job typically means she doesn’t get home until after 6 PM. Workers at the Sae-A factory produce around 150 shirts per hour, receiving G240 (US$3.73) per day. If they manage to churn out more than 1,100 T-shirts in a day, they receive a bonus of as much as G50 (US$0.78). The wages take care of only food and rent, and not much else.
When then Haitian president Michael Martelly visited the Sae-A factory, several workers personally complained to him about conditions at the factory and were docked a day’s pay as punishment. Not that they had a friendly ear: Martelly sent in the Brigade d’Intervention Motorisée (BIM) — a famously corrupt, elite unit of the Haitian police — to quell the unrest.
These conditions are not limited to Sae-A. Noel Jeancinor, another farmer whose land was seized, was paid a mere G200 (US$3.10) for construction shifts that could at times stretch far longer than twelve hours — if he was paid at all. While he was promised overtime, it was rarely given.