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Ellen Ruppel Shell

In Haiti, another disaster needs our help

By Ellen Ruppel Shell
January 22, 2010

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THIS WEEK, CNN contextualized the earthquake disaster in Haiti by showing an archival news clip of Haitian children eating mud cookies made primarily of edible clay trucked in from the country’s Central Plateau. A good number of Haitian mothers apparently believe that feeding their children clay mixed with a bit of oil or sugar is better than feeding them nothing. There is logic to this: the cookies fill empty stomachs, after all, and may even contain trace minerals. The fact that clay has little if any nutritional value and often carries dangerously high levels of bacteria is easily forgotten when a mother is looking into the eyes of her starving child.

Watching children munch mud cookies on CNN brought to mind a similar line of logic involving sweatshops. Supporters claim that sweatshops are a regrettable but necessary first step on the ladder of development. Sweatshops, they argue, are the very embodiment of free enterprise - workers flock to them not because they are forced to, but because it is the best possible option open to them, just as Haitian mothers chose to feed their children with mud cookies. But that begs the obvious question: is this the best we can do?

Haiti exports nearly 200 million T-shirts each year to the United States, T-shirts stitched by factory workers reportedly making as little as 18 cents an hour. Like children who must make do with mud cookies, these garment workers must make do with a starvation wage - wages even lower than their parents earned working in similar factories 25 years ago. So the idea that sweatshops are but the first step on the road to development doesn’t really stand up in Haiti. Factory work there is not the first step on a rising ladder, but a wet patch on a slippery slope from which it is nearly impossible to gain footing, let alone make progress.

Haitians flock to factories because they have virtually no alternatives, thanks at least in part to US-supported policies that helped wreck their country’s once flourishing agricultural system. While Haiti once exported rice, for example, today three quarters of its rice ration now comes from the United States. This benefits America’s rice growers, but does little for Haitians, who are now importing nearly 50 percent of their food. Paying for that food requires cash, and acquiring that cash requires working in a job that gives the developed world something it wants - like cheap T-shirts.

To acquire these factory jobs entire families must move away from rural regions to cities like Port-au-Prince, squeezing into squalid slums of wobbly concrete houses that barely keep off the rain, let alone withstand an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Today, Americans are digging deep to help Haitians. Obama has pledged $100 million in aid and troop support. But when the bodies are buried and the streets cleared, will we continue to exploit Haiti as a source of cheap labor and an outlet for our agricultural surplus? Or will we encourage and help the country to apply some of its many millions of dollars in foreign aid to build a new economy, one with a viable infrastructure, renewed agriculture, a tourist industry, and modern manufacturing that pays a living wage? Sweatshop labor brings Americans ever cheaper T-shirts, but it is far too weak a foundation on which to build a strong society. Like mud cookies, sweatshops may fill the stomach, but they offer nothing close to sustenance.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor at Boston University, is author most recently of “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.’’

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