Haiti: UN head pushes more FTZs

In an op-ed in the March 31 New York Times, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon announced economic development plans for Haiti based on the expansion of “free-trade zones” (FTZs), industrial parks for tax-exempt assembly plants producing for export (maquiladoras). Ban said this will enable Haiti to take advantage of 2008 US legislation known as HOPE II, which gives Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to US markets for nine years.

At an international donors conference in Washington, DC in mid-April, Ban will seek aid for “creating the sort of industrial ‘clusters’ that have come to dominate global trade…dramatically expanding the country’s export zones, so that a new generation of textile firms can invest and do business in one place.” This export strategy was worked out by Ban’s special adviser, Oxford University development economist Paul Collier, along with the government of President René Préval, according to the op-ed. Ban and former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001) visited Haiti on March 9 in preparation for the donors conference. (NYT, March 31)

Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group (HSG), a British solidarity organization, said his group was “appalled” by the plan. He noted that international lending institutions have pushed an export strategy for decades with no positive results for Haiti. In the early 1980s the Haitian garment assembly sector employed some 60,000 workers, but the number has declined as foreign contractors moved production to other countries. Prospects for the sector seem even worse now that the global economic crisis is driving down demand for imports. Arthur called Ban’s plan “a slap in the face” for President Préval and Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis. Since the outbreak of food riots in April 2008 and widespread destruction by four tropical storms in August and September, the president has stressed the importance of expanding national production, especially in agriculture, Arthur said. (No Sweat website 3/31/09)

Meanwhile, Haitian business groups have been lobbying against legislation which would raise the minimum wage to 200 gourdes a day (about $4.96) from the current rate of 70 gourdes. The Chamber of Deputies passed the raise earlier this year, but the measure has been stalled in the Senate. On March 24 the Senate’s Social Affairs Committee held a two-hour closed door meeting with business leaders. Participants wouldn’t say what the results were, but Haiti Chamber of Commerce and Industry president (CCIH) Reginald Boulos warned afterwards that while wages need to be increased, a 200 gourde minimum wage might provoke inflation and lead to massive layoffs and could hurt the government’s job-creation program–apparently a reference to the plan for FTZ expansion. (Haiti Press Network, March 25; Radio Métropole, March 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 5

See our last post on Haiti.