In a sign that this battered nation is slowly beginning its long road back from the quake’s devastation, factories at the Sonapi Industrial Park have reopened for business.
BY JIM WYSS AND JACQUELINE CHARLES
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Of all the places in Haiti in which to have the world cave in around you, perhaps none was safer than the Sonapi Industrial Park.
When the Jan. 12 earthquake leveled much of the city, it killed more than 100,000 people, but not a single person working in the 158-acre industrial park died that day, although many lost family members.
Now Sonapi may deliver another miracle: steady employment.
While much of the city is still reeling from the earthquake that demolished industries, paralyzed the banking sector and snarled shipping, Sonapi — which has 47 factories and 15,000 employees — is quietly coming back to life.
All but one of its factories, known for exporting duty-free garments to the United States, reopened this week, almost half the workers are back on the job and hundreds more gathered outside to clamor for grueling work that pays less than $7 a day.
The reopening of Sonapi, and the banks in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, are signs that this battered nation is ever so slowly beginning the long road back from the devastation the massive quake left behind, officials say.
Richard Coles, who owns a garment factory in the industrial park, said Haiti’s private sector has been wrestling with a dilemma during the past 10 days on whether to open as they were out performing rescues, and providing food and water to earthquake victims. But after 10 days “you could see the people were back to business, they were starting to sell food, whatever they could. We decided last week we had to be a lot more responsible and get back to work.
“It makes sense; long-term humanitarian [aid] doesn’t. It’s only jobs and consumers. That’s what will make the difference,” he said.
“While the international community and the government are really fighting to help people to get food, we definitely need to play our part.”
Georges Sassine, president of the Manufacturers Association in Haiti, said the sector employed a total of 28,000 workers — not just in the Sonapi complex. He said it was critical to call employees back to work.
“The goal is to bring people back to their normal lives as quickly as possibly, and getting their jobs back is part of it,” said Sassine, who is also responsible for implementing the U.S. Congress-approved duty-free HOPE legislation benefiting the garment industry.
Reviled by some as a sweatshop for international companies, the industrial park is likely to be key to Haiti’s recovery. Before the earthquake flattened the nation’s already battered economy, garments represented about 91 percent of all of Haiti’s exports to the United States. And almost two-thirds of the nation’s garment industry is concentrated inside the compound.
One of those factories, DKDR-Haiti, churns out 40,000 suit coats and 30,000 pants per month, for companies such as Jos. A. Bank and Lou Levy and Sons. Virtually all of the clothing is exported to the United States, including Miami, said company president DK Lee.
“Fortunately, most of our workers were here at the time of the earthquake,” which hit just before 5 p.m., Lee said. “And this structure is strong.”
Unlike the heavy concrete-and-beam buildings that toppled throughout the capital, most of the factories in the duty-free zone are made of relatively light steel and zinc.
While the buildings escaped serious damage, business did not. As news spread about how the earthquake had destroyed the principal pier in Port-au-Prince, toppling massive gantry cranes into the water, jittery customers moved orders to factories in Central America and elsewhere.
DKDR responded by taking cargo overland to the Dominican Republic for shipment.
“My customers have been very understanding,” said Lee, who moved his enterprise from the Dominican Republic to Haiti after the United States dropped tariffs on Haitian garment exports in 2007. “And they were willing to accept additional freight costs.”
Even so, Lee said he’s hopeful shipping will resume from Port-au-Prince next week.
Although the port has been partially repaired, it is being used exclusively for shipments of humanitarian assistance and aid, as the international community has been struggling to bring enough supplies into the nation.
Lionel Desir, the principal advisor to the free-trade zone’s director, said too much is riding on the enterprise to keep it paralyzed for long. Before the earthquake struck, there were plans in the works to bring in more factories that could boost employment to 25,000 workers.
“We are already the biggest employer in the country,” he said. “It’s important that we expand.”