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At stricken Haitian factory: prayers for the dead and new jobs

CARREFOUR, Haiti — Across this dusty countryside, women came in white dresses, their heads wrapped in white, and men walked beside them in black pants and white shirts. White for holiness, black for mourning to mark the one-month anniversary of the earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people in Haiti.

In this suburb of Port-au-Prince, they came by the hundreds on Friday morning, gathering together on a concrete slab that once was a massive three-story T-shirt factory employing 1,500 people. They mourned their lost families and celebrated that they are alive.

It is believed that more people died in this factory than in any other structure in Haiti.

"Hundreds died inside here," said Alain Villard, owner of Palm Apparel, a contractor of the Canadian clothing company Gildan Activewear. "We think over 300, but don't know for sure. There are still critically injured."

On Jan. 12, the quitting time bell had sounded a half hour earlier when the earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. The sewing machines were still humming as workers paid a piece rate tried to boost their daily wage to $7.

Jean Michel Aquime left early that day, but lost his closest friend, a supervisor.

"There is not a person in Carrefour who is not in some way a part of this factory, who did not have a loss," said Aquime. "But, when it is back, we hope we will work here again."

In a country where a third of the people survive on 44 cents a day, according to a 2006 International Monetary Fund report, he and other survivors say they felt lucky to have work at Palm Apparel where they made about $140 a month.

"There was an employee waiting list," Aquime says.

Of the 28 textile factories in Haiti, seven were destroyed, according to owner Villard. Palm Apparel, with two plants and 3,400 employees, was one of the largest.

"It overwhelms me. This factory was so important to Carrefour," said Jerome Yvon, mayor of Carrefour, on Friday.

Before the earthquake it was factories such as this one that signalled a modest strengthening of Haiti's feeble economy. One industrial park in the capital boasted a business plan that foresaw the doubling of its workforce each of the next two years, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Now these once bustling workplaces have become memorials.

Nothing remains of the Palm Apparel factory. Its concrete floor has been swept clean of rubble. The dead have been buried. Only a tin corrugated fence rings the property.

"We are here to pray for our victims, but we need to go on with our lives. That is why we are here," said the priest Jean Barnabe.

The mourners sang hymns — "Oh, piteous God," they repeated over and over — workers in T-shirts with the phrase Nou pap janm bliye nou ("We'll never forget") painted the tin fence a pristine white.

"Out of respect for those we lost," says Villard, 41, who was born in and grew up in Haiti.

Villard has maintained since the first day that he would rebuild the factory. Too many families in this community depend on the work, he says. Meanwhile, a portable annex is almost completed at the company's second, undamaged textile plant a few miles away.

A sign on the corrugated tin fence surrounding the now-vacant site tells those at the mass to come back on Feb. 15 to apply for work. Villard expects he can put 300 of his employees back at their sewing machines at the other factory.

Gildan has said it would provide food and money to the families of the dead and permanently disabled workers. It has also pledged to help its contractors rebuild.

When the new factory is completed, it will be more "socially responsible" than the destroyed one, says Villard. It will have a free hospital, a psychological clinic and child care, he promises.

"This is a sad day. The pain is not over for us," he said. "But just look at the courage here today. I have no choice but to stay with my fellow Haitians and make it better."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

At stricken Haitian factory: prayers for the dead and new jobs 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 11:47pm]
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