BENEATH AN ALMOND TREE and on a hardwood bench, 15 black men and women, their foreheads bedewed by the tropical sun, were waiting out the morning. They were unemployed laborers on hand for the daily job-openings lineup at MacGregor Sporting Goods Inc. The New Jersey-based firm is the largest of some 250 American companies now in Haiti.
With more than 800 workers at the expansive MacGregor complex, and with plans to hire about 1,200 more when a new 45,000-square-foot building is finished in January, job opportunities are here. In the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere -- per capita income is $270 a year and less than $150 a year in rural areas -- the three or four people hired every day see themselves lucky. Some luck. Starting wages, set by law, begin at $2.65 a day. The average wage at MacGregor is about $4 a day.
Before examining where the luck really lies -- with the destitute workers or with MacGregor and its employment of a low-cost labor force, exemption from Haitian taxes and tariff breaks -- a look at the work site itself is necessary. Among other products, 600 baseballs, 600 footballs and 300 softballs are assembled daily. The raw materials are shipped from the United States and put together here, including sewing by hand of the balls, and then shipped as finished products to a port in New Jersey.
Haitians, in addition to being friendly and generous people, are known as industrious workers. In their pink and gray work clothes, which the MacGregor employes pay for themselves out of their $4 a day, the hundred or so men and women sitting on metal chairs at wooden tables appeared to be models of efficiency as they stitched baseballs. A decent output for each is 36 baseballs a day.
As these citizens of the world's most wretched country toil to produce playthings for the world's richest, ethics and economics collide. The reason workers are happy to have jobs at $3 and $4 a day for which they would be paid $40 a day in the United States is that this is all anyone can expect when economic repression is partnered with political repression.
Under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, Haiti's president-for-life, there is no free press to raise questions, much less hell, about the salaries. Politicians stay mum, or expect the worst. Gregoire Eugene, an opposition leader and an editor of the independent newpaper "Fraternite'," was quoted in the New York Times in June: "I think that American enterprises that pay their workers back home at least $3 an hour can be convinced to pay Haitian workers at least $6 a day -- without inconvenience." For similar outbursts of reasonableness, expressed in two issues of his newpaper before it was silenced by the government in June, Eugene is now in his third month of house arrest. Security guards keep him in and all visitors out.
Herbert Rosenfeld, MacGregor's president, sees his firm as a benefactor of Haiti. "You're looking at a labor force that is 50 percent unemployed," he said of the 2,000 people either hired or about to be hired. The Haitian operation is run by Haitian executives. As for the suggestion of Gregoire Eugene, that $6 a day might be in order, Rosenfeld objects on the grounds that such a wage "would preclude the competitive advantages." The corporation's sales increased 25 percent in the past year.
MacGregor recently sponsored a trade mission to Haiti in which executives from some two dozen American firms examined the chances for greater profits after relocation. Though not exactly a gold mine, the deep pit of cheap labor, as well as the trade benefits created by the new Caribbean Basin Intitiative, is an investment lure that is causing toy and textile companies to abandon operations in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, where the wages are double or triple and the export-import costs higher.
Corporate executives, after roaming the world in search of a rosier bottom line, can now find it in the country at the bottom of the earth's poverty. In addition to getting away with paying a subsistence $3 or $4 a day, there is the other management delight: no unions and no collective bargaining.
It is true that a few dollars a day is better than nothing to a starving Haitian. But that promises to be the lot of his children and grandchildren. Desperately needed capital or technology is not being transferred here. Development money from the United States tends to go for roads, deeper ports and other commercial necessities. That keeps the Port-au-Prince assembly plants humming, while in the rural areas, where 80 percent of the country's 5 million people are found, families live in indescribable conditions of malnutrition, disease and depression.
Until these realities are faced, Haitian workers, whether sewing baseballs or softballs, are no match for some of corporate America's best strike-out artists.