A Factory Sputters Back to Life in Haiti By RAY RIVERA - New York Times
“The walls are still standing, but they are cracked,” said one of the workers, Laurance Merzy, 32. “It is not safe in there.”
So began the hesitant reawakening of one of this impoverished country’s few economic engines.
Workers at Haiti’s textile factories receive little pay for long hours. But in a country where hopes for economic development have long been frustrated, the garment factories have been seen in recent years as a potent vehicle to spur private investment. They now account for 90 percent of Haiti’s export revenues.
How many factories joined DKDR Haiti in resuming work on Monday is not clear. But the return to business at DKDR demonstrated one of the central challenges of putting Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, back to work. People’s desire to return to their jobs, if they still have them, sometimes collides with their anxiety about a place that has not stopped trembling from aftershocks.
DKDR, which is Korean-owned and makes men’s suits and tuxedos for retailers like Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Wearhouse, alerted its workers as best it could over the weekend that operations would resume on Monday. It employed 1,300 people before the earthquake on Jan. 12. Managers said they might not know for days how many workers were alive or had fled to the countryside.
People reported to work around 7:30 a.m. on Monday (their usual workday starts an hour earlier) at three of the factory’s buildings at the sprawling Sonapi industrial park near the airport. Managers were uncertain about how many employees showed up.
But in a fourth factory building, the workers were scared and angry. They were owed paychecks for the two weeks before the earthquake. And they did not like the look of the cracks that ran up the walls of the cavernous building toward the corrugated tin roof.
After all, the Palm Apparel T-shirt factory in the Carrefour neighborhood collapsed during the earthquake, killing at least 500 people.
“We heard on the radio, if there are cracks on the walls don’t go in the building,” said Silus Dieumarthe, 30, whose employee ID card identified her as Inspector 280972.
DKDR Haiti moved its operations here from the Dominican Republic in 2008 to take advantage of tax breaks offered by the Haitian government, said C. H. Lee, the company’s general manager in Port-au-Prince.
He acknowledged that his workers did not make much: about $170 a month on average, he said. Many of the workers said it was more like $100 a month for work that can include Sundays when there are orders to be filled. But by Haitian standards, where nearly 70 percent of workers make less than $2 a day, it is a modest improvement.
When the women at DKDR scrambled outside in fear of aftershocks, a supervisor warned them that they would be fired if they did not return to work. The workers, neatly dressed even though most had been sleeping on the streets for nearly two weeks, were not swayed.
The managers then tried a softer approach. They offered to bring their employees lunch and water, assured them that the building had been inspected and was safe, and promised that they would be paid on Wednesday, as soon as the payroll could be processed. They also offered to pay the women about $2.50, for their transportation for the day.
Finally, the managers brought in a Presbyterian minister to ease the workers’ fears. She led them in a song, “Let’s Sing to Jesus,” followed by “Amazing Grace.”
Gathered at the entrance, the women clapped and sang. Ms. Merzy sang, too, but she kept her distance, staying close to the chain-link fence leading to the street.
By 9:45 a.m., most of the women were back at work, though some were nearly nodding off at their sewing machines. They were exhausted from sleeping on the streets, constantly startled by any rumbles, Ms. Dieumarthe said.
Some of the women, like Remise François, 22, made sure to keep the area next to them clutter-free, having mapped out the best escape route should the building start to rumble.
“I’m sitting in a running position,” she said.
Reluctantly, Ms. Merzy also returned to work. She said she had to, with a husband and two children to support and another child on the way.
As she sat at a table stacked with cloth, she looked out at the sewing machines. Only about half of them were being used.
“A lot of people are missing,” she said.