Make us your home page

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Ramadan having an economic impact on local charities, businesses

    Economic Development

    TAMPA — Dodging the rain, a few families and customers gathered inside Petra Restaurant on Busch Boulevard. Around 8:30 p.m., the adham (or call to prayer) music begins, signaling Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Customers grabbed a plate to dig into the feast.

    Baha Abdullah, 35, the owner of the Sultan Market makes kataif, a common dessert that is eaten during the month long celebration of Ramadan in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  2. Senate GOP leaders face tough job in selling health-care bill to their members


    WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leaders on Thursday moved swiftly to begin selling their health-care measure to substantially rewrite the Affordable Care Act to their wary members as they seek to garner enough support to pass the bill in an expected vote next week.

    U.S. Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled a proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The bill's chief author, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has said "Obamacare is collapsing around us, and the American people are desperately searching for relief." [AP]
  3. Rick Scott eyes Patronis as CFO, but it may not help him in Panhandle

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's expected pick of Jimmy Patronis as the state's next Chief Financial Officer would be a solid addition to the Republican Party ticket but may not do much to smooth some rough waters developing in the Panhandle over schools, area Republicans said this week.

    Former state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, left, is being considered by Gov. Rick Scott for the state's chief financial officer. Patronis, seen with Scott in 2011, is considered one of the governor's chief loyalists. 

  4. In your 20s and living with mom and dad? In Florida, you're not alone.

    Human Interest

    TAMPA — After graduating from the University of Florida in 2015, Gabrielle Piloto jumped on the highway and headed south to Tampa.

    Gabrielle Piloto, 22, moved home to live with her grandparents in West Tampa after graduating from the University of Florida in 2015. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]

  5. Southwest Airlines to offer flights from Tampa to San Diego


    TAMPA — Southwest Airlines will offer daily nonstop service from Tampa International Airport to San Diego International Airport beginning Jan. 8, 2018.

    Southwest Airlines is planning to launch service from Tampa to San Diego.
[Times file photo]