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Haiti's sweatshops keep costs of our T-shirts low

Among the many aisles packed with perfectly serviceable, unbelievably inexpensive merchandise, there was nothing remarkable about the $11.97 five-pack of Hanes T-shirts I recently saw at a Walmart Supercenter.

Except usually I have to guess how they sell stuff so cheaply. In this case, I'd seen for myself.

These shirts were made in Haiti, at a factory I visited in September, or one like it.

So at a time when so much of our merchandise is made in unfamiliar places, under conditions we can only guess about, I offer this glimpse into the world of offshore manufacturing — just as something to think about at the start of the Christmas shopping season.

It is just a glimpse, regrettably, and not a thorough report, because I was tagging along with representatives from an aid group, Partners in Health. The organization was encouraging Multi Tex, the company that makes the shirts for Hanes, to run a designer T-shirt factory in the Central Plateau.

So how do Walmart and Hanes offer a shirt for roughly the same price I remember paying for a similar garment (though printed with my school's name and logo) 35 years ago?

Low wages, of course, as is the case for most foreign-made goods all along the price spectrum and — in fairness to Walmart — available at just about every retail outlet. (Though let's not let Walmart off the hook completely. With its relentless push for low prices and its power to pressure suppliers, it played a major part in creating our reliance on cheap, overseas labor.)

At the time of my visit, the minimum wage for factory workers in Haiti was about $3 a day. Jeffrey Blatt, the factory manager, said his workers can make twice that amount if they meet their quotas.

He didn't say how often they do so or how much they are paid if they don't.

He did say that wages in Haiti have to be as low as they are, otherwise the country could not compete against countries with better infrastructure and more sophisticated factories.

These factors, along with the razor-thin operating margin, also explain the miserable working conditions. There is not enough electricity for air conditioning, he said. The walls of the factory could not bear the strain of enlarging the small windows. A combination of issues prevented Multi Tex from installing a system to pour sheets of water over the roof, to cool the main sewing room.

The room was the size of an aircraft hangar, filled with rows of workers hunched over sewing machines and so hot that leaving it for the humid 90-degree-plus conditions outside was like walking into a blast of air conditioning.

So here, "sweatshop" was a literal term, especially because the workers' only break from the jobs they do all day, every day — sewing on a collar, for example — was at midday.

I don't mean to suggest that we should boycott goods from poor countries as we do our holiday shopping over the next few weeks. With unemployment estimated to be 70 percent, Haiti needs even jobs that don't pay a living wage.

But it doesn't hurt to know about the working conditions of the people who make our T-shirts and, maybe, the toys and electronic gadgets we buy. And to acknowledge that something about this isn't right.

Haiti's sweatshops keep costs of our T-shirts low 11/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 27, 2010 12:39pm]

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