PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Steve Jean grew up making clothes, and so did his parents and grandparents. Now he's helping create a new generation of textile workers that aid agencies hope will help Haiti rebound from a devastating earthquake.
Jean is head trainer at the country's first job training center for textile workers, the U.S.-funded Haitian Apparel Center, that was inaugurated Wednesday — a bright spot in an economic landscape that was bleak even before the Jan. 12 earthquake.
"We have a lot of young people in Haiti who are not working and who don't have any profession," Jean said. "So, this is an opportunity for them to learn something, to know how to sew."
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten said it would also help Haitian companies advance from making "simple things, like sheets and T-shirts, to more complex garments. And more complex garments mean higher profit margins and more money coming into the country."
The center, which will eventually train some 2,000 people per year, was planned long before the earthquake. Its opening was delayed because a post-quake emergency health clinic occupied the space for several months.
The center is part of a four-year, $104.8 million USAID program to improve manufacturing skills of workers. It dovetails with the Haitian Economic Lift Program, which was signed into law in Washington, D.C. in May to expand Haiti's garment trade with the U.S., largely by expanding tariff exemptions.
The center also aims to have U.S. executives give seminars to senior managers, factory owners and business leaders.
Wages range from about $3.09 to $5 a day for entry-level textile workers in Haiti. While workers struggle to feed, house and clothe their families on that income, it's better than what most Haitian workers have: no formal job at all.
Officials also say that once workers are trained and become more skilled, they will earn more than the minimum.
Even before the earthquake, unemployment was estimated at between 60 and 80 percent. People get by on remittances from relatives living abroad, selling items in the street or odd jobs.
The U.S. aid should help boost a Haitian apparel industry that last year shipped $513 million worth of goods, with labels including Hanes and New Balance.
The industry has been shrinking in recent years — down to about 25,000 jobs, a quarter of what there were 20 years ago.
As a test run before the formal opening, USAID and the center trained 13 sewing machine operators. All appeared for a certificate ceremony on Wednesday. And all have been hired at factories.