White House asks US clothing companies to 'Buy Haitian'

The Obama administration on Tuesday asked US clothing companies to source 1 percent of their production from Haiti. The 'Plus One' effort is designed to help the earthquake-ravaged country get back on its feet.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
A woman sweeps a busy street in downtown Port-au-Prince Tuesday.

The Obama administration is asking the US apparel and textile industry to help Haiti get back on its feet.

On Tuesday, the US trade representative, Ron Kirk, in Las Vegas at a trade show, asked US apparel and textile companies to source 1 percent of their production from the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Haitian officials say the plan, called Plus One, could make a difference in helping the country, since the nation has a history of making garments and a workforce that already has some training. American consumers would be able to tell if their underwear or T-shirts are made in Haiti, because they would have a label with an H with a positive sign in the blue and red colors of the nation.

“One percent may seem small – but it means new jobs and new opportunities for the Haitian people, who so desperately need forward-looking solutions in the wake of January’s devastating earthquakes,” said Ambassador Kirk in a statement.

Already, some major US companies source some of their products from Haiti, including Hanes, Levi Strauss & Co., the Gap, and American Eagle. Some 25,000 workers were employed in Haiti's textile industry before the Jan. 12 earthquake, and accounted for as much as 80 percent of the country's export earnings.

Haitian officials believe the US effort, which is voluntary, could have a positive impact. “It is a good signal,” says Jean Palene Mathurin, chief economic adviser to the prime minister of Haiti in an interview. “This will be very helpful to Haiti.”

Mr. Mathurin says an increase in apparel exports from Haiti will help the nation to also rebuild its ports, electrical grid, and water system.

Some of the factories used to make garments were damaged during the earthquake, including one where as many as 500 people lost their lives. Mathurin says the government is making an assessment of the buildings. “We don’t want to put at risk additional workers,” he says. That said, 75 percent of the textile industry is back up and running.

Haiti business executives believe if more companies made a commitment to source their apparel from Haiti, it could provide a considerable number of new jobs. “There are 12 companies sourcing their product from Haiti, creating 25,000 jobs,” says Richard Coles, Port-au-Prince-based president of Multitex, an apparel division of Sirius Group. “If we can get 50 companies to source from Haiti, we could create thousands of jobs.”

Even before the earthquake, a factory job was extremely valuable. “One person with a job supports 10 to 12 people,” says Jerry Cook, vice president for government and trade relations for Hanes Brands, Inc., which has operated in Haiti for 10 years.

Hanes ships US-grown cotton to the Dominican Republic, where it is converted to fabric. Then it is shipped to Haiti, where it is manufactured into underwear and T-shirts. It is then shipped back to the US or other countries, says Mr. Cook.

Retailers are generally positive about buying goods from Haiti. “It is another source, and we generally don’t like to put all our eggs in one basket,” says Craig Shearman, vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation in Washington. “And, it’s closer, so you have a shorter shipping time.”

Hanes and other US producers in Haiti take advantage of two trade acts that give duty-free treatment to Caribbean. One of them, the Caribbean Basin Trade Act, is due to expire in October. The second, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE II), which benefits Haiti more, expires in 2018.

Under legislation proposed earlier this month by Sens. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, both trade acts would be extended, one until 2013, the other until 2022. Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York is expected to introduce similar legislation in the House.

HOPE II was enacted in 2008 after the Haitian apparel industry declined from 100,000 workers to 12,000, says Andre Samet, founder of Sorini, Samet and Associates, a lobbying firm in Washington. In the new legislation, Mr. Samet would like to see duty-free status also given to apparel made with non-US made fabric, in an effort to get back more of those lost textile jobs.

“It won’t hurt the US industry,” he argues, “since most of the fabric, such as those used to make shirts and trousers, is not available in the US anyway.”


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