In the cool of early morning before the punishing Caribbean sun makes bustle imposssible, thousands of Haitian workers board brightly painted jitneys that carry them to assembly plants on the outskirts of town. There the workers -- mostly women in short skirts with their heads bound in scarves and the character of Africa stamped on their faces -- sit for hours stitching baseballs for a sport they neither play nor watch others play.
The spectacle of the stitchers in neat rows doing work no machine can do is a thing of beauty. With a curved needle in each hand threaded from spools above their heads, their outstretched arms rise and fall like tropical birds in flight as they pull the stitches. To those familiar with the Haitian culture, the action also resembles the Voodoo they dance by night.
The women earn $1.80 a day for putting 108 stitches in each standard baseball. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, means cheap labor. With one of the world's lowest minimum wages and a sweet-tempered, quick-learning population of 6 million and 50 percent unemployment in the capitol city, Haiti is becoming a Mecca for firms in search of low labor costs.
Already 190 American and other foreign companies have moved to Haiti where their products are finished by hand . . . or "transformed." Most firms ship raw materials already measured and cut to be assembly by Haitian hands, the country's only marketable natural resource. Ninety-five percent of Haiti's "assembled for export" goods will be consumed in the United States or returned for further finishing.
Light industry's steady, if tortoisepaced migration to Haiti is similar to what went on in Japan, Taiwan, Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America.
"Central America is in flames. The Far East is pricing itself out of the market, so now Haiti gets the business," says Robert Richmond, economic attache at the American Embassy."
Baseball manufacturers pioneered light industry on the island and began moving from Puerto Rico where the minimum wage has risen from 35 cents to $2.05 about a decade ago. Today 90 percent of all baseballs are assembled in Port au Prince where sport good companies -- Rawlings, Wilson, Dudley and Spaulding among the most noted -- either have established their own plants or contract out to Haitian companied.
Textiles, electronics, toys and furniture started following the baseball industry's example about eight years ago when Jean Claude Duvalier became the republic's president for life after the death of his father, Francois [Poppa Doc] Duvalier. During the elder Duvalier's terrifying regime, Haiti's already suffering economy plumneted when foreign aid and investment virtually ceased.
Because the younger Duvalier's government has improved human rights and functioned without serious threats of overthrow, the country again has foreign assistance about 9 percent of the $1 billion gross national product in 1977 $9 and appeal to investors.
When Duvalier took office, he pledged to develop his country, which is the size of Maryland and shares the island where Christopher Columbus first landed -- Hispaniola -- with the larger, more prosperous Dominican Republic. Duvalier's watchword is: "My father brought about the political revolution. I will bring about the economic revolution."
The government offers cheap land and tax incentives to lure investors. It exempts "assembly for export" and agriculture companies and manufacturers of goods needed for local consumption from taxes and duties on both the corporate and shareholders level. Also machinery and raw materials may be brought into the country duty free during a firm's first 10 years of residency.
Haiti's obvious drawing card for U.S. investors is its proximity to the States. Regular air cargo flights and Port au Prince's improved harbor equipped with "roll on, rool off" docks for container shipping make transport efficient. Haiti posesses other natural harbors, but the government hopes to direct future development away from the capitol to provide jobs for the 80 percent of population who subsist through agriculture. Only one-third of the land is arable, and the average Haitian eats 1,850 calories a day. The minimum standard is 2,500 a day.
In addition to creating jobs, Haitians hope industry will improve other parts of the economy. Although textiles outnumber other assembly-export groups, and prestigious firms like Gucci [only their leather buttons are made in Haiti] and Pierre Cardin have plans for expansion, they have not penetrated other parts of the economy.
Baseballs, on the other hand, once were shipped here only for stitching leather covers over centers manufactured elsewhere. Manufacturers now assemble other parts in Haiti and increasingly use local materials.
"There is no spontaneous generation here," says Robert Tippenhauer, who as manager of Worth of Tennessee has watched his country try to pull itself up by its economic bootstraps. "We just hope one step will lead to the next." Now Haiti puts together the complete Worth baseball using local wood chips and sisal fibers in the centers. And machinery which once was sent back to the U.S. for repair is serviced locally.
Although the future looks brighter for Haiti today than it has since African slaves brought to work French plantations won independence in 1804, success is not guaranteed. The republic's track record is not good. Once the most productive colony in the world, Haiti has seen its agricultural exports decline steadily. Today it imports rice, the staple of its fast-growing population, and cynics joke that Haiti's idea of agricultural reform is to restore the irrigation ditches dug by the French in the 17th Century.
Recent development has made a smaller dent in Haiti's poverty than at first is apparent. Although light industry has created about 40,000 jobs and accounts for 45 percent of salaried positions, this represents only 4 percent of the employable population. However, each job supports at least five persons in spite of its incredibly low wage by U.S. standards and provides modest fringe benefits such as medical care for the employee.
U.S. labor forcefylly objects to American businessmen creating jobs aboard when unemployment continues to rise at home. "Entire towns such as Fall River and Brookfield, Mass, have shut down when textile mills move out of the country," said Michael Boggs of the AFL-CIO. "This would be different if the American consumer benefited from the cheap labor through lower prices. But the companies still sell high and make huge porfits."
Labor also charges that Haitian workers ofter are exploited and do not receive their full minimum wage. It claims that plant managers take a portion of wages and give the rest to the employees.
"I have investigated those charges, and I have found no evidence of skimming," argued Richmond of the U.S. Embassy. "It may go on, but it's not the usual case."
Pessimists see Haiti fighting a losing battle to take its place among emergency nations. "Until more roads are built and electricity and communications are improved, Haiti will not get investment in the volume it's hoping for," said one development specialist. "And that won't happen without government reform. The government has to be more open, efficient and get its priorities straightened out."
But Guy Bauduy, Haiti's minister of commerce and industry, remains optimistic. He returned to Haiti after more than 20 years in the U.S. with a Ph.D. in economics and a fighting spirit honed on the campus civil rights movement. In his few months as minister, he has stirred controversy at home and aborad over his brusk, authoritarian [and some claim socialistic] measures to whip the Haitian economy into shape. If his motives and methods are often misunderstood, his voice is clear and proudly Haitian.
He says: "Taiwan did it. Japan did it. Why not Haiti?"