Impoverished Haiti's factories back to work, cautiously


Port-au-Prince (AFP)

After a month-long shutdown because of the coronavirus, Ghislaine is back behind her sewing machine at a Haitian textile factory, grateful for the $4.90 daily wage.

President Jovenel Moise on March 19 ordered the immediate closure of all factories, schools, training centers and universities after the first two confirmed cases of new coronavirus in the poorest nation of the Americas.

The decision put the textile sector's nearly 60,000 workers out of a job, and was taken without consultation with the country's private sector or labor organizations.

Work has now resumed with many precautions, starting with an obligatory scan from a laser thermometer. Anyone with a temperature higher than normal is refused entry into the factory where Ghislaine works in a Port-au-Prince industrial park.

MBI, the factory's South Korean operator, also requires workers to wash their hands and put on a mask before sitting down to stitch more such face coverings.

They are a product in addition to the factory's normal output of medical uniforms, but still won't be enough to secure the operation's future during a global economic collapse caused by the pandemic.

Coronavirus has only worsened the challenges for Haiti, a Caribbean nation still struggling with the aftermath of a 2010 earthquake which killed more than 200,000 people and largely demolished the capital, Port-au-Prince.

It is mired in corruption and was roiled last year by protests against Moise's government.

In a country with no unemployment insurance, the government said it would pay the furloughed workers half their salary.

- An uncertain future -

But Ghislaine believes she only received one-quarter, and for that reason declines to give her last name.

"We stayed at home as the president asked, and we got by thanks to the little savings we had," she said.

"The assistance we received does not at all cover our expenses for the lost month."

Even at full wages, high inflation and the rapid devaluation of the national currency have eaten away at their spending power.

Still, in an economy dominated by the informal, under-the- table sector, the daily wage of 500 gourdes (nearly five dollars) for eight hours' work is very attractive.

Yves Estival, MBI's director of human resources, said employees are calling and asking to return to work but a government order restricts the plant to reopening with only 30 percent of its staff.

So a number of rows of sewing machines sit empty.

Although the Haitian government has ordered 10 million masks, more than 46,000 of which MBI is contributing, MBI's main customers are in the United States where an economic collapse stemming from widespread lockdowns of the population has led to fewer imports.

"We cannot export," Estival says in front of a stock of pants that were intended for the American market.