The extension of ILO’s Better Work programme to Haiti is welcome

Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is still picking up the pieces after January’s tragic earthquake. However, an ambitious programme to improve working conditions in Haiti’s clothing export sector is taking shape. Twenty-one garment factories have put their names to Better Work, an initiative backed by the International Labour Organisation.

Signatories will be required to show they are meeting core ILO norms on issues such as fair wages, working hours and workplace health and safety. Compliance comes with a big carrot. Qualifying companies will be authorised under a preferential trade agreement – known as Hope II – to import without duty to the US.

The project is not without precedent. Initially launched in Cambodia in 2006 on the back of a previous ILO factory improvement programme, the Better Work project has been rolled out in Vietnam and Jordan. As a direct result, these countries have seen factory compliance improve, as well as capacity of trade unions and labour ministries increase. And Haiti requires radical improvements on all these fronts, says Amy Luinstra, acting global director of Better Work.

“The basic challenge is widespread non-compliance and an absence of social dialogue and genuine worker representation,” she says.

Naturally, Haiti faces many challenges that fall outside the programme’s remit. Post-earthquake reconstruction, correcting Haiti’s record of abysmal public education and endemic illiteracy, and widespread unemployment are among them.

But the opportunity for a step-change in working conditions for Haiti’s 21,000 garment workers should not be underestimated. The sector represents 8% of the country’s formal workforce, and all the main players are on board with Better Work.

Fair pay

One benchmark of success for the four-year programme will be a minimum wage. Haiti’s garment manufacturers typically define their workers as unskilled. This enables them to exploit a legal loophole letting them pay less than two-thirds the official minimum wage.

“Better Work can facilitate a tripartite dialogue [between employers, unions and government] to get to a consistent interpretation of the law,” says Patrick Neyts, senior adviser at corporate responsibility specialist Vectra International and a consultant on the Haiti project.

Day rates mark another benchmark issue, Neyts says. Clothing workers are traditionally paid according to a piece rate. Excessive daily targets require employees to work more than the statutory eight hours – usually without overtime pay.

It is not only garment workers who should benefit. Buyers should too. The reputational risk for US brands such as Gap, Levi Strauss and Nike that procure from Haiti should reduce dramatically. Compliance costs should also fall as an ILO-led monitoring system replaces multiple buyer-financed factory audits.

“Our objective is to reduce the number of audits each supplier is getting every year,” says Richard Lavallée, country manager for Better Work in Haiti.

Haiti faces a laundry list of problems. Factory conditions in the garment sector are one among many. But as a business solution to the nation’s needs, Better Work has much to commend it: better jobs, increased trade, and – presumably – increased productivity and employment. If it works, so much the better.

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