A Celeb-Backed Apparel Factory in Haiti Goes High-End

The apparel plant seeks to spark an industrywide revolution

A Celeb-Backed Apparel Factory in Haiti Goes High-End
Workers at IRII are trained in multiple skills, increasing their employability
Photograph by David Rochkind for Bloomberg Businessweek

When apparel brand Boxercraft was searching for a new supplier for its T-shirts and tank tops earlier this year, it didn’t turn to factories that crank out millions on the cheap. Instead, the 120-employee business, based near Atlanta, chose Industrial Revolution II, a garment manufacturer in Haiti. What clinched the deal was more than IRII’s competitive prices and low importing costs: It was the venture’s promise to train unemployed Haitians, pay them more than the minimum wage, and donate half its profits to social programs. Shoppers are “feeling responsible for the actual employee that is making the products that everyone is wearing today,” says Boxercraft Chief Executive Officer Shelley Foland, noting that the garment complex collapse that killed 1,100 workers in Bangladesh this spring has brought renewed focus on the dismal conditions in some factories. Foland wants IRII eventually to produce about 40 percent of the millions of tops and bottoms Boxercraft sells annually through wholesalers and retailers in college bookstores and resorts.

Backed by designer Donna Karan, actor Matt Damon, and Joey Adler, CEO of Diesel Canada, IRII started production at its 35,000-square-foot facility in Port-au-Prince in early September. The ultimate goal is to land orders from Western brands for more upscale clothes—the sort that usually go to plants in New York, Los Angeles, or Milan—instead of the low-value work that is the mainstay of Haitian factories. IRII co-founder and CEO Rob Broggi says the venture was born out of frustration with the “outright failure” of global relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake. “The people in Haiti don’t want handouts,” says Broggi, a former U.S. hedge fund manager. “They want economic opportunity and good jobs.”

Garment manufacturing accounted for 80 percent of Haiti’s exports and about 10 percent of its gross domestic product in 2010, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). U.S. trade laws waive duties on much of the clothing imported from the Caribbean nation. Richard Coles, who has spent the past 15 years running his family’s 3,000-employee textile operation in Haiti, calls much of the local apparel industry “archaic.” Coles, who is also an IRII co-founder and co-owner, says factory owners need to treat their workers better and give them more responsibility instead of “squeezing them to the limits.”

Housed in an industrial park near Port-au-Prince’s airport, the IRII factory has rows of high-end Japanese sewing machines and a $275,000 digital garment printer that produces intricate details and myriad colors. There are two spotless bathrooms and an on-site health clinic where a doctor and nurse will be stationed daily.

Yet the bright, freshly renovated space and the fancy machinery are almost beside the point, says Coles: “The revolution is on the factory floor.” At most apparel plants, workers generally spend their days doing one thing: stitching hems or setting sleeves, for instance. At IRII, the initial crop of 40 employees has been trained in “four, five, six types of sewing,” says instructor Roody Alexis, who has spent the summer training them. “These workers have a chance to make more money, because they have more skills,” he says.

Broggi says workers are guaranteed the standard minimum wage, about 300 Haitian gourdes (roughly $5.50) a day. They have the ability to make “multiple times” that amount through a compensation plan based on how many units they produce, their quality, and how much raw material they conserve.

Among the hires at the IRII plant is Saurel Manoucheka, a 29-year-old mother of two who helps support her parents. “It’s the first time I’ve found a job,” she says. “It was a little difficult, because I didn’t know how to sew, but the trainers are very patient.”

IRII’s founders expect the plant’s workforce to expand to 300 within a year, giving the operation the capacity to produce 4 million to 5 million items annually. “No one has ever thought of producing higher-quality” apparel in Haiti, says Rahul Desai, coordinator of operations at the IDB, which lent IRII $1 million in June. “It’s a transfer of technology, knowledge, training,” Desai says, that could “move the country up the curve as far as the apparel industry goes.”

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