I found TIME’s recent photo essay, Commerce Comes to the Aid of Haiti, fascinating. It examines how American entrepreneurs have poured capital into Haiti’s textile industry, creating jobs and income for Haitians, while keeping international focus on the damaged nation. Both the photo essay and the accompanying article talk about how great this is for Haiti.
To me, this was fascinating not just because it is another prime example of how the private sector can participate in aid and recovery, but because the magazine is championing the factories of the garment industry in a poor country.
Usually, those get called sweatshops, and the public perception of them is far from positive.
Garments and textiles have long been in the crosshairs of the anti-sweatshop movement. And what is going in Haiti is really no different than what goes on in countries such as China, Bangladesh, or Vietnam. While these new factories look a bit cleaner, it is pretty certain that the workers are being paid a fraction of what the same retailers would pay workers in America. It’s also doubtful that the workers could even afford the very goods they are making. These are the things that make sweatshops so odious in American culture, and fuel the perception they must be shut down.
But this time, something is different.
Instead of calling them horrific labor abuses, these factories are being called “big economic drivers”. Gap is promoting a “Made-in-Haiti” line instead of hiding where the production of its garments occurs. American firms, with great public enthusiasm and support, are outsourcing work to Haiti.
These are things that have been seen as bad if not immoral corporate practices in the past (there’s a reason that garment countries have worked to keep their association with the developing world quiet), but now, they are being rightly portrayed as helpful to developing and fragile economies.
So, if these things are being championed in TIME magazine, it seems to represent a massive shift in public perception of the economic role of the garment industry in developing countries. People are beginning to understand that industry and commerce are long term and powerful solutions to the economic problems of poor nations.
The reason for this sudden change is somewhat unclear. However, it is the fact that a change does exist that is of great importance.
Poor countries will only experience their most rapid growth once they are able to become part of the international economic system. Becoming part of the system requires these developing countries to utilize the few economic advantages that they have. In countries like Haiti (or China or Bangladesh or Vietnam), their best advantage tends to be a relatively cheap labor force.
Often, when private companies are allowed access to this labor force, we see something like what is going on in Haiti: an impressive financial engine that allows even the poorest of countries to develop a sustainable economic model. These poorest nations are able to produce goods and thus trade with the richest nations, creating jobs and livelihoods. As time progresses, this translates to economic growth on a large scale (think China or India), raising the standards of living not for just the factory workers, but for country as a whole.
The problem is that this all relies, of course, on the continued support of the consumers in rich countries, so the public perception of the goods that they buy becomes essential to the process.
In the past, the consumer-backed anti-sweatshop movements and boycotts have greatly hampered the development of such private-industry fueled growth in poor countries. However, if these same consumers are now beginning to see the “made in insert-developing-country-here” tag as a sign of who is being helped as opposed to who is being hurt, it would pave the way for public acceptance and eventual promotion of these programs – and the ensuing economic growth and poverty reduction that would result.
So maybe it’s not the “Made-in-Haiti” shirts that are the most important export from the stricken nation right now. It looks like maybe it is the new attitude towards sweatshops and the garment industry that will be even more helpful in the end.