Can a Red T-shirt Really Save a Life?


I made my first trip to Haiti in mid-2009, when my curiosity led me to visit a nonprofit organization I had read about in a book.  I was so impressed by their work that I opted to join in and teach English to a classroom full of young boys and girls and I fell in love with their beautiful smiles.  A year later, I returned, but this time I traveled to the island of La Gonave, where I spent a week living in the community of Gran Sous.  I was honored at week’s end to be able to deliver to a family the keys to a house constructed in honor of my father who had passed away.  I continue to support the community and have stayed in touch with them.  Though I knew I wanted to return to Haiti one day, I hadn’t imagined I would have the opportunity to do so professionally, but in January of 2013, I leapt at the chance to join my colleagues in the Bank’s country office located in Port au Prince.

As a Bank Specialist, I lead six projects, but the one that consumes the majority of my time and energy is the Caracol Industrial Park (PIC) –a project grant that is now in its fourth phase, and is preparing for the fifth and final operation.  The PIC is located in the northern part of the country, outside Haiti’s second largest city, Cap Haitien.  For some, it seems an odd choice to build an industrial park that would attract manufacturers and create jobs so far from the country’s capital which endured such devastation following the 2010 earthquake.  But it is precisely the magnitude of that devastation that embattled the Capital’s overpopulated and poverty stricken hillsides that led the Haitian government to embark on a plan to decentralize the country’s population through job creation.  With financing and support from the IDB and the US Government, Haiti’s government was able to build a state of the art facility.  Inaugurated in October 2012, the industrial park, today, has already attracted five tenants, generated almost 5,500 direct jobs and helped to create an estimated of 722 indirect jobs.

Overview of the PICOverview of the PIC. Courtesy of IDB.

Results like these can be both satisfying and rewarding, but I have a confession to make.  At times, I have, instead, felt defensive and uncomfortable.  You see, while most of my friends are very supportive of my work and want to know more, a couple of them have discomfited me with a more probing question, “What it is like to work on a project that is fomenting a form modern day servitude? “  Wow!  In truth, though I don’t agree with their characterization, I empathize with their question which reflects news headlines about the realities of notorious sweatshops operating around the world.

It’s in those uncomfortable moments that I reflect on my favorite red t-shirt, a t-shirt that I believe has the power to save and change lives.  It’s a source of inspiration and pride for me — not for a logo stitched across it, nor for some unique fashion statement made.  This collection of woven and sewn fibers dyed a powerful red was produced in one of the factories in the Caracol Industrial Park.  You can buy one just like it at Walmart for $7.44, just a little more than the minimum daily wage of a factory employee, $5.11.  Yes, $5.11 seems a shockingly low daily wage, but in Haiti, where two-thirds of the country’s population lack formal employment  and more than 80% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, a job at the factory that pays a daily wage two and half times that amount represents a tangible chance at a better life.

The mere mention of “garment factories” in public forums conjures images of sweatshops where workers wager their lives in miserable, dirty, and hazardous work environments for pennies.  But that is not what you will find in Caracol.  When I think of Caracol, I think of Ysenamene, a factory employee I recently met.

Ysenamene had never had a job before coming to work at the S&H factory located in the Park.  Today she works in one of the three factory buildings dedicated to constructing garments for export.  Ysenamene is a single mother who started in the packing division, and has since been promoted to supervisor in less than two years.  She lives in one of the 750 Caracol-Ekam houses located in the “Village la difference” just down the road and built by USAID, and for the first time she has running water and electricity (generated by the Industrial Park’s power plant).  She earns enough to pay someone to take care of her children and help them with their homework, a much needed job for her babysitter.  More importantly, Ysenamene says she can now afford to buy food, clothes, and shoes for her children, as well as educate them.  And she also told me that she recently bought them a pet, a small dog.

The reality is that the Caracol Industrial Park has, thus far, given more than 6,000 families a chance at a better life, and that number is on track to double each year.  In several years, when operating at its peak, that number is estimated to reach more than 20,000 direct jobs.

Park employees work in a very modern, clean and safe facility.  The park provides free round-trip transportation to the four surrounding communities, employees receive benefit packages that include health insurance and pension plans, and the company constructed a cafeteria where employees can purchase breakfast and/or lunch prepared and offered by local Haitian vendors.

I am very grateful to be able to work in one of the Bank’s 26 country offices, to experience first-hand the difference our work is making in the lives of people living in the region, and for the chance to deepen my understanding of and build stronger relationships with the Haitian people we serve.  For Caracol Industrial Park employees, the vast majority of whom are women, a steady wage and benefits means that, for the first time, they can reach beyond just eking out life’s basic necessities, to include, what for too long and too many, have been considered luxuries in Haiti — sending their children to school, or securing a home with running water and electricity.  My red t-shirt, produced for export by Ysenamene and her coworkers, is a powerful reminder that creating jobs in a country where jobs are so scarce, does in fact save and improve lives. As captured in one of my favorite Haitian sayings, “Piti piti na rive” which means, “little by little, we will arrive.”

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