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Haiti : Minister of Commerce expects new Free Trade Zones to open

By Charles Arthur

Vienna, 19 dec. 06 [AlterPresse] --- Haiti’s Minister of Commerce and Industry expects recently passed US legislation to create thousands of new jobs and lead to the opening of at least two new Free Trade Zones.

In an interview with AlterPresse while attending meetings at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, Austria, at the end of last month, Maguy Durcé said if the legislation was passed, new investment in Haiti’s textile assembly sector would follow.

The Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act of 2006 - allowing garments assembled from textiles from certain third countries to enter the US market without tariffs being charged - was finally passed by both Houses of the US Congress in the last hours of this year’s congressional session on 9 December.

Durcé said, « The HOPE Act will encourage investment, and that is good for the hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti who do not have work. No investment. No jobs. »

She said that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry had been lobbying in favour of the HOPE Act, and stressed that its passage through the US Congress was necessary to attract new investment in the assembly sector. « We had some success in attracting the Dominican company, Grupo M, to Haiti, and, with support from the World Bank, some years ago it invested in the free trade zone in Ouanaminthe (north-east Haiti). »

She continued, « Three thousand jobs have been created there, and it could soon reach as many as 10,000. But for more investment to come, we need this legislation. »

Durcé said that the Haitian government was already negotiating with the Taiwanese government over the creation of a new Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Port-au-Prince, and that another FTZ for garment assembly production was planned for the area of Morne à Cabris (Mòn Kabrit) between Port-au Prince and Mirebalais in the Central Plateau department.

Durcé, who was appointed Minister of Commerce and Industry when the new Préval/Alexis government took office in May this year, said she was aware that workers in the new FTZs had rights that had to be respected by their employers. Referring to Grupo M’s CODEVI operation in Ouanaminthe, where, after a long struggle, a workers’ union - SOKOWA - is now established, she said, « Thankfully that is working very well now. It can serve as model for labour-management relations in the new FTZs. »

The passage of the HOPE Act is an important boost to Durcé’s drive to bring new investment to Haiti. She told AlterPresse that she was in Vienna not only to celebrate the 40th anniversary of UNIDO but to also hold meetings with the organization to explore ways to boost cooperation on two issues : measures to help Haiti produce goods and to trade them, and measures to help facilitate investment. She said that as well as helping foreign and local investors set up businesses in the garment assembly sector, her ministry also wants to promote opportunities in the essential oils sector.

Another issue of concern to Durcé is the ever increasing cost of living in Haiti. Her ministry frequently bears the brunt of public discontent about rising prises, especially for food items.

Since mid-2005, activists from Haiti’s Collective to Mobilize against the High Cost of Living have been holding regular demonstrations outside the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in the capital, Port-au-Prince, demanding that the government intervenes to halt spiralling price rises for essential everyday commodities.

Asked why her ministry had not intervened to protect poor Haitians from the price rises, Durcé replied, « Haiti is a member of the World Trade Organization and we must respect the free market. In this we are the same as the other members of CARICOM, and the same as countries in Europe. We cannot intervene to lower prices. »

Durcé said that her ministry was though helping hard-pressed consumers by monitoring prices. « We check prices of items at different markets, and we make this information known to the consumer. The population knows where the cheapest prices are, and this has the effect of forcing those asking for higher prices to reduce them. Ours is a work of information, not intervention. » [ca gp apr 19/12/2006 13:00]