Port-au-Prince, Haiti — In a further blow to Haiti's already fragile economy, one of the biggest boosters of American investment in Haiti confirmed this month that he is pulling his baseball manufacturing out of the troubled island nation and moving it to Mexico. The manufacture of sporting goods, particularly baseballs, is one of Haiti's biggest industries. There is concern here that the decision by Fred Brooks, chairman of MacGregor Sporting Goods, may start an exodus of other American businesses from a country that is already facing a 50 percent unemployment rate.
A few months after the February 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Mr. Brooks met with 50 other Americans at the White House to discuss American investment in Haiti. He became a leader in encouraging American business to begin operations here.
``I have not stopped being a Haiti supporter,'' Brooks said after the announcement that the baseball production would be ended. But he said he wanted to see the results of the military overthrow of the civilian government that took place in late June.
``Obviously, for any business to operate, we have to have a stable government,'' Brooks said, promising that ``if things settle down, we will increase production of our other goods there, such as basketballs, footballs, and athletic clothing.''
Millions of baseballs are made in Haiti each year. MacGregor isn't the largest baseball factory in Port-au-Prince, but its 200 workers turn out 600,000 to 700,000 balls a year.
Brooks claimed the decision to move the baseball operation to Mexico was made ``weeks ago'' and is based primarily on labor costs and expected savings from combining baseball production with other operations. Currently, however, no baseballs are being produced in Mexico.
Political activists and union organizers in Haiti have been pushing for an increase in the minimum wage from $3 a day to $8.
But the unions want to move too quickly, says Gerard Bailly, general secretary of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce. ``They have a misconception of what labor unions are.''
Robert Tippenhauer, vice-president of Worth Sporting Goods/Haiti, said his company, which produces 200,000 baseballs a year, is ``not at all concerned'' with union demands.
He says that salaries ``should be increased.'' At $5 to $6 a day, the 400 Worth/Haiti workers already make more than the minimum wage, he said, and that ``is increasing gradually.''
Mr. Tippenhauer, himself a Haitian, believes the June 20 coup may have slowed efforts at unionization. ``I think the country will be quieter for a while, rather than the trend to social unrest and union demands.''
Brooks expects that the closing of the MacGregor baseball factory ``will be influential.''
Rawlings, for example, is the official and exclusive manufacturer of National League baseballs. Rawlings has one of the biggest baseball factories in Haiti, with 1,000 to 1,100 employees.
Rawlings spokesman Scott Smith said that he had ``discussed the situation with our plant people. Everything is calm and peaceful, and there is no threat to our employees.''
Mr. Smith conceded, however, that Rawlings is locating a plant in Costa Rica. Construction has begun and the company is training workers to sew baseballs. The Costa Rican baseball production ``would probably be in addition'' to the Haitian production, not in place of it, Smith said.
Glenn Rupp, president of Wilson Sporting Goods, which also has a large baseball factory in Haiti, said he is neither ``concerned nor surprised'' at the baseball pullout by MacGregor. ``It will not have any impact on anything we do.''
The coup has not seriously interrupted production at the DeBeer baseball factory, which employs 300 workers and produces about 360,000 baseballs a year, says John Vivenzio, purchasing manager of DeBeer and Sons.
``Even one day after the coup, we were at 95 percent capacity,'' he said. Political upheaval since Mr. Duvalier was overthrown has not been a problem, he claimed. ``We own the factory, and we are there to stay.''
In Tippenhauer's opinion, American companies shouldn't be pulling out of Haiti. Instead, they should be investing there. ``I think it is the right period now, believe it or not,'' he said.