Others worry about the social consequences. Amy Wilentz, one of the best known American writers on Haiti, called
the park "a new kind of plantation" and compared low-wage factory work
to slavery. Others have decried the idea of using
low-paying factory jobs as a step in the country's development. Some say that Haiti has already tried this strategy, and failed, or that the investment
would be better spent in agriculture.
It's certainly true that Haiti's apparel sector has boomed before. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report
estimates that it employed up to 100,000 people between the 1960s and the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. A military coup in 1991 led to a trade
embargo that hamstrung the industry, at the same time that competition was growing from regional neighbors like Honduras and emerging markets in Asia.
Hans Garoute, a Haitian social entrepreneur, remembers that period. At the time, he says, U.S. manufacturers in Haiti that had initially produced only
low-value goods like t-shirts and underwear were starting to make products that command higher prices and wages. But in the political chaos of the late
'80s, he watched many of those companies move production to Asia. "Today," he says, "we're back to t-shirt."
Apparel manufacturers have slowly rebuilt since the end of the trade embargo, with the help of a U.S. law passed in 2006 that allowed Haitian apparel to
enter America duty-free. The law, known as HOPE (the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act) was amended and expanded in
2008, and after the 2010 the earthquake, expanded once again through HELP (the Haiti Economic Lift Program). Employment in Haiti's textile sector has
rebounded to about 30,000.
In 2009, knit and woven apparel accounted for 92% of Haiti's exports to the United States. Haiti needs growth like that
to counterbalance its large trade deficit--$3 billion in 2011 according to the World Bank, or 41% of GDP.
Haiti exports crops such as mangoes, cacao, and coffee, but agricultural products comprise only about 6% of all exports.
The country imports 80% of the rice it consumes, mostly from the United
States. Decades of deforestation and soil erosion, the lack of a modern farming sector, and government subsidies doled out to American farmers make it difficult for Haitian farmers to compete globally.
"Working in a factory is not a gift," says Garoute, "but believe me, sitting in Trou-du-Nord and do nothing, and you are 24 years old, that is worse." In
1992, Garoute founded INDEPCO, a non-profit network of tailors across Haiti who sew school uniforms and other garments for the domestic market. It also
does training sessions, like one it held last year in the northern town of Trou-du-Nord for a group destined to work at the Caracol park.
But in the global textile industry, margins in low-value production can hardly pay Haiti's $5 per day minimum wage, Garoute says. "They have China making
t-shirt," he says. "They have India making t-shirt. You have Pakistan making t-shirt. And don't forget, those countries make the raw material as well." He
says that Haiti's textile industry will only grow into higher-value-added production with proper investment in the workforce.
At the industrial park, female workers wearing chartreuse aprons and headscarves stream out of the blue factory buildings on their lunch break. Frandline
Joseph sits outside. She sews for Sae-A and says she doesn't like the work: "I don't have time to sit."