Haiti: maquila sector tries to improve its image

On April 8 Haitian business owner Bernard Schettini was installed as the director general of the National Industrial Parks Company (Sonapi), the semi-private agency in charge of the industrial parks that house many of the country’s 23 apparel assembly plants. These factories, known as maquiladoras in Spanish-speaking countries, benefit from tax and tariff exemptions to produce goods for export to the North American market. Schettini replaced Georges Barreau Sassine, a former head of Haiti’s industrial business association (ADIH) who assumed the Sonapi post in August 2012. Trained as an architect, Schettini was previously an executive at Texaco Haïti Inc., an oil supply company; it is unclear how much experience he has in the apparel industry, which in Haiti mostly produces T-shirts.

Although there seemed to be no official explanation for the change at Sonapi, Commerce and Industry Minister Wilson Laleau indicated on April 8 that the industrial parks agency needed to be more proactive in expanding job opportunities. The Sonapi shakeup came less than two months after the agency contracted with the Washington, DC lobbying firm Sorini, Samet & Associates at a rate of $5,000 a month to help lobby the US Congress, presumably for continued trade preferences. The DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which revealed the existence of the lobbying contract, noted that “increased scrutiny” of the assembly plants “could be why Sorini, Samet & Associates was hired.”

Low wages and labor abuses in the assembly sector were the subject of a New York state tour by a Haitian factory worker in February and of a widely circulated March report by the Haitian investigative collective Ayiti Kale Je/Haiti Grassroots Watch. Meanwhile, the new industrial park which opened in Caracol in northern Haiti last October has reportedly produced just 1,400 jobs so far, rather than the tens of thousands promised. CEPR notes that past work by Sorini, Samet & Associates principal Andrew Samet—who was deputy undersecretary of labor in the administration of former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001)–included helping “the government of Colombia in presenting information on labor issues with relevant US stakeholders,” as stated in a contract between Samet and Colombia. This was at a time when concern over the murders of Colombian unionists was holding up passage of a “free trade” agreement with the US. Sorini, Samet & Associates has also worked for the government of Bahrain after what Justin Elliot of Salon called the government’s “firing of hundreds of workers and union leaders for participating in strikes and other pro-democracy actions.” (CEPR, Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch, March 27; Haïti Libre, Haiti, April 10; AlterPresse, Haiti, April 11)

The changes at Sonapi coincided with adjustments the government of Haitian president Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) made to its economic and communications teams. On April 10 Economy and Finance Minister Marie Carmelle Jean-Marie resigned, complaining of a lack of “solidarity” with her colleagues in the cabinet. She was replaced by Wilson Laleau, who will also continue for the time being as commerce and industry minister; Laleau himself has become a target of criticism because of the government’s widely doubted claim that it has created 400,000 jobs. Communications Minister Régine Godefroy resigned soon after Jean-Marie; she wrote a letter describing her “self-sacrifice” and the “relentless fight” she’d had to carry out at the job. (AlterPresse, April 12; Miami Herald, April 12, from correspondent)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 14.