Today, the global apparel and light manufacturing industry is undergoing a transformation, with international buyers increasingly looking towards the Western Hemisphere to source goods in light of rising costs and concerns over worker safety standards in several Asian countries.
Haiti is well-positioned to create tens of thousands of jobs and harness the opportunity it presents for our growing apparel industry. Our nation has a deep history in the apparel sector, which at one time employed more than 100,000 workers and today employs 31,000. Indeed, Haiti is poised to meet international demand, be a good partner to buyers, and importantly, improve the livelihoods of our people. In other words, Haiti is open for business.
In the north, we built one of the largest industrial parks in the region with state of the art facilities, a keen eye towards worker safety, and associated investments in energy, housing, agriculture, transportation and environmental preservation. The park, which opened last year, has four tenants and is already the second largest employer in the area with 2,050 employees. In the next six months, the number of full-time jobs will grow to 6,000 and over the next five years to 20,000. Demand for space at the park outstrips supply, with tenants ranging from apparel and sisal producers to chemicals and prefabricated housing manufacturers. Haiti is home to other industrial parks, Codevi and Sonapi to name just two that are also filled to capacity and are adding new factories.
Over the past three years, Haiti has accomplished a historic feat of tripling the minimum wage while weathering the effects of a global recession, growing employment and recovering from an earthquake that devastated our economic and social center. During this period, we added 6,000 net new apparel jobs and increased apparel exports by 30 per cent.
But these gains have been hard won and we have faced criticism from outside our borders.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has advocated for an interpretation of Haiti's laws that would require our manufacturers to pay a 50 per cent premium over our minimum wage – yet our minimum wage already is on par with an upper middle-income country like Mexico. The ILO's interpretation of Haiti's laws, which is at odds with our understanding of our laws, would make Haiti's minimum wage higher than that of many middle-income countries; it also would result in every apparel manufacturer being out of compliance, with devastating consequences for our economy.
To put the apparel industry opportunity in Haiti in context, the majority of our families make around $700 a year in subsistence agriculture, never certain if heavy rains may wash away their harvest. This struggle is part of the reason new apparel manufacturers like Sae-A received 50 applications for every job when they opened their factory. A single mother in Caracol now earns an average annual salary of $1,820 in her first ever wage job. If she advances to become a line supervisor, she can earn up to 50 per cent more. Previously unemployed, she now can afford to send her kids to school, pay for a mobile phone and 24/7 electricity and have some discretionary income to save. She also benefits from paid vacation, healthcare and one of the best worker rights and worker safety regimes in the world thanks to the US Haiti HELP Act of 2010.
Haiti is a poor nation but we are rich in labor, artistry and spirit. With an unemployment rate of 65 per cent, we have an urgent need for jobs. When I look at the opportunities for growth in the light manufacturing industry in Haiti, I am reminded that all but one of our apparel factories defied the destructive forces of the 2010 earthquake, creating a safe haven for those inside.
Like the ILO and other valuable partners of Haiti, we look forward to the day when the vast majority of Haiti's people have jobs. We are committed to continuing to build an environment that holds ourselves and employers accountable for safe working conditions, competitive and growing wages, and opportunities for advancement.
That's why we ask our friends and partners to support our efforts to help tens of thousands of Haitians escape poverty. To work with us to grow these jobs and our wages while protecting Haiti's competitiveness in the global marketplace. To take a clear-eyed look at what it means for a young woman with three children in a small Haitian town to have a formal job. And to engage with us in a dialogue driven by the facts on the ground and the experiences of our citizens – so we can learn together how we can do more and better for the people of Haiti.
It's a new day in Haiti, and we must continue to build on our successes. We have constructed homes, schools and hospitals. We are rebuilding our government ministries and have laid over 500km of roads and power lines. We have helped our farmers grow and market more crops. And we embarked on an aggressive strategy to develop tourism, which is starting to bear fruit. My government has also invested in education, transparency, law enforcement and the fight against corruption – all to create an environment that's constructive to helping families rebuild their lives and to inspiring the private sector to invest. Join in helping us continue on this positive path to recovery and long-term sustainable development.