A recent pre-election fact-finding trip to Haiti included a series of encounters with prominent industrialist and political activist Andy Apaid, Jr. Well-known for his leadership role in the U.S., EU, and Canada-backed Group of 184 umbrella civil/political opposition that agitated for President Jean Bertrand Aristideâ€™s overthrow in 2004, Apaid is equally well-known for his apparel factories.
We set out to meet with Apaid and visit Apaid Garment Factory (AGF), his main factory located on Toussaint Lâ€™Ouverture boulevard in Port au Princeâ€™s industrial sector. Apaid has long been a subcontractor for the Canadian T-shirt maker Gildan Activewear who, in recent years, have honed in on the Caribbean, specifically the DR and Haiti, as their primary base of operations for providing an estimated 40% of the U.S. t-shirt market. Earlier this year, Gildan CEO Glenn Chamandy estimated to his shareholders that annual sales should reach 60 million dozen t-shirts by 2009. â€œGildan’s manufacturing is among the most cost-competitive in the industryâ€¦.Gildan’s labour costs in countries such as Haiti and Honduras are actually cheaper than those in Chinaâ€¦the bulk of T-shirts heading to the U.S. market are from the Caribbeanâ€¦â€ (Globe and Mail, April 11, 2005).
The first thing we did was call Andy to request an interview. When we reached him via cell phone, Apaid was cautious, demanding a letter from our assigning editor proving our journalistic credentials. Apaid had learned his lesson, he told us, in November 2004 when attorney Thomas Griffin, who Andy called â€œa paid Aristide lobbyist,â€ used an interview with him to characterize him in an unfavorable light (http://www.law.miami.edu/news/368.html).
Griffinâ€™s report, published by the University of Miami Law Schoolâ€™s Center for Human Rights, quoted Apaid to expose his instrumental role in the coup against Aristide and his affiliation with criminal elements in Haitiâ€™s populist slum, CitÃ© Soleil. â€œDuring the investigation, investigators repeatedly heard reports from police and slum residents that Apaid pays a CitÃ© Soleil gang leader to kill Lavalas supporters.â€ Apaid himself told Griffinâ€™s team in November 2004 that he â€œhad arranged a meeting with all Cite Soleil â€˜gangâ€™ leaders three weeks after Aristideâ€™s ouster, including Tupac, Amaral, Billy, Dred Wilme, and Thomas â€˜Labanye Robinsonâ€™. Apaid [said] he asked each of them to agree to disarm, and only Labanye agreed.â€
Apaid indicated that he was traveling throughout the week but that an interview in his home on the weekend might be possible. Several days later, after receiving an email from our assigning editor, Apaid contacted us via his assistant to confirm that he would grant us the interview. No time was scheduled, however, and we were to call back to confirm once Apaid had returned from his trip.
On Saturday, October 1st we found ourselves in the industrial sector, just a few hours before the time at which we had been instructed to call Apaid to confirm the meeting. We decided to stop by AGF to see if we could view the premises. AGF is enclosed by high walls and a guarded gate entrance. One of us approached the guard booth and was asked to hand over press credentials. They took our credentials and told us we could enter the premises by way of an adjacent entrance. We drove through the metal gates and sought a parking space. On our way to the back of the lot, we saw hundreds of boxes of Gildan product stacked on pallets. We then exited the vehicle and made our way to the factory, drawn by the roar of sewing machines and loud music. Inside the factory we saw row upon row of sewing machines worked by about a thousand workers in between stacks of boxes,of multicolored T-shirts, all of which sported the Gildan label. Mostly, the sewing machines were operated by young women, with male foremen pacing every two or three rows of sewing machines.
We spoke to several female sewers. They told us their wages amount to 1500 Haitian gourdes every two weeks (about 100 gourdes, or less than USD$3, per day). AGF operates by piece work: the sewers are paid by the dozen t-shirts that they sew. They work from 6:30 in the morning to 5:00 at night.
After several minutes of interviewing workers on the floor, one of the pacing foremen approached us and offered us the chance to meet Mr. Apaid. We were surprised he was even there.
â€œActually,â€ we replied, â€œwe donâ€™t need to disturb him now. We have a meeting with him tomorrow.â€
â€But heâ€™s here now.â€ a manager said firmly.
â€œSorry, but is there a problem?â€
â€œNo, thereâ€™s no problem. Itâ€™s just that heâ€™s waiting for you now.â€
Since we didnâ€™t want to keep Mr.Apaid waiting, and since it was abundantly clear that we had no choice in the matter, we followed the management out of the factory and into the front offices to meet Apaid. We were led through a short, narrow hallway with one-way mirrors into enclosed the inner sanctum where we met Apaidâ€™s assistant, who treated us like a group of people who had made an appointment:
â€œMr. Apaid is in a meeting. Heâ€™s looking forward to meeting you. He doesnâ€™t have much time right now; heâ€™s in a very important meeting; he will come down to tell you personally that he regrets not being able to spend more time with you.â€
Shortly thereafter, Apaid emerged from his meeting and shook everyoneâ€™s hands. There was something about his manner that suggested our prospects of interviewing him were fading fast.
â€œMr. Apaid,â€ one of us said, trying to save the future interview, â€œweâ€™re very sorry for interrupting â€“â€œ
â€œ–Not nearly as sorry as I am,. Because I have to tell you I donâ€™t have the time to see you now.â€
We tried interjecting again: â€œWe just wanted to–â€
â€œ–You just wanted to see my face. Well, here it is.â€
We decided on the direct approach. â€œCan we still meet with you?â€ Apaid reminded us that we were supposed to call him at 2:00 P.M. (implicitly rebuking us for just showing up at noon). He suggested an updated plan: we should call him back at 5:00 P.M.
We did better than that: we called him once every 10 minutes or so between 5:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M, and got used to the sound of his cell phone ringing and ringing.
We finally reached him the next morning (Sunday). He agreed to a meeting for Monday at 3:30 P.M. He again brought up the question of the letter that he had initially requested in order to filter out â€˜Aristide propagandists.â€™ â€œHave you sent the letter from your producer? Was it copied to all of you?â€ We affirmed that the letter had indeed been sent, several days earlier, to the e-mail address that he had specified. â€œAlright thenâ€¦â€ Andy sounded resigned to meeting with us.
At mid-day on Monday, Apaidâ€™s assistant called to inform us that the meeting was cancelled. â€œAndy regrets that something has come up; he cannot meet with you. Call back at 3:45.â€ It struck as odd that Apaid should be available for a phone call only fifteen minutes after he had been scheduled to meet with us. [This same day, a briefing we had tentatively scheduled with the International Republican Instituteâ€™s in-country director Walter Turnbull was cancelled by IRI spokesperson Lisa Gates, who did not think that Turbull should give us the briefing because one of us was a commentator for ZNet, which she â€œhardly consider(ed) a legitimate newsgathering organization.â€ Had our interviewees discovered the power of google and decided they didnâ€™t like our writing?]
This setback, in any case, was not the last of our encounters with Apaidâ€™s interests. On our final day in Haiti, we decided to again stop by the AGF. It was, after all, on the way to the airport. We arrived at lunch time as many workers were filing out of the factory to have lunch just off the premises. We struck up a conversation with a few workers, and over the next few minutes we were surrounded by a large group of workers, about thirty of whom shared numerous details of their working conditions with us:
â€¢ Machine operators, mainly young women between the ages of the 18 and 30 years old, corroborated that they earn 70 gourdes a day for sewing from 6:30 A.M. â€“ 5:00 P.M. (with a lunch break).
â€¢ One woman who had worked at the factory for eight years, said she earned 36 gourdes a day when she began. (In May, 1995, Aristide more than doubled the minimum wage, raising it from 15 gourdes to 36 gourdes a day.)
â€¢ AGF garnishes 150 gourdes from workersâ€™ salaries every two weeks for food, which is served to workers during lunch break.
â€¢ Workers complained about heat and dust on the shop floor, and the fact that they could be fired without notice.
â€¢ Asked about maternity leave, women workers laughed. They say they receive 500 gourdes (about 12 USD) when they have a baby. There is no vacation pay, andno overtime. (Technically speaking, they donâ€™t work overtime.)
One man told us that he makes 8 gourdes (0.20USD) an hour operating a machine. He earns 70 gourdes a day. However, he says, once he spends the 12 Haitian dollars (60 gourdes) necessary to travel from Carrefour (a Southern Port au Prince commune) to the factory and home, he has only 10 gourdes left over. He referred to the entire operation as â€œorganized theft.â€
None of the workers we spoke to wanted to be named, and they all adamantly refused to be filmed. They were quite open about the fact that they feared that they would be fired if identified.
â€œApaid cares a lot about money, but he doesnâ€™t pay,â€ observed one woman.
â€œWhy do you continue to work here then?â€
â€œBecause there are no other jobs.â€
Lunch-time was edging onward, our conversation with the workers ended, and it was time for us to go. We drove away from the workers at the AGF gates and the boxes of Gildan T-shirts stacked inside, and headed toward the airport.
Andy might have been inside, having an important meeting about the future of the country behind a few one-way mirrors. But he was too busy to meet with us.