Labor group says Haiti's factories are unsafe

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Haiti's garment factories are unsafe for their workers, often lacking marked fire exits, safe drinking water and sufficient toilets, a labor group said Wednesday.

A study by the Geneva-based Better Work organization looked at working conditions in 23 Haitian factories from May to August. It found 13 workplaces were not sufficiently lighted, and 11 failed to clearly mark emergency exits and escape routes. Eleven factories did not have adequate fire-fighting equipment.

It also found that 21 did not have the legally required number of toilets, and the same number didn't have onsite medical facilities and staff.

Henri-Claude Muller-Poitevien, president of a government commission that oversees Haiti's assembly plants, said he welcomed the survey by the labor compliance group, which is supported by the International Labor Organization and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.

He said his commission is working with Better Work and the fire department to mark emergency exits and install fire-fighting equipment.

"All the buildings need improvement _ this is what we are doing now," Muller-Poitevien said. "We definitely want to comply with everything, but we will never be the triple-A student."

Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe responded on his blog Tuesday night to a separate report from another labor group that alleges assembly plants don't pay their workers even the minimum wage. He said the country is "continuing to build an environment that holds ourselves and employers accountable for safe working conditions, competitive and growing wages, and opportunities for advancement."

Garment workers now earn a baseline salary of 200 gourdes, or $4.54, per work day. Others who meet production quotas can earn 300 gourdes, or $6.81 a day.

These factories have been in Haiti for decades, once making baseballs, now T-shirts for major North American retailers. U.S. legislation in recent years has sought to make it easier for the factories to export clothing items while providing much-needed jobs in a country where about two-thirds of the 10 million people lack formal employment.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, U.S. officials including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton championed garment factories as a way to wean Haiti from its dependence on foreign aid. The State Department was instrumental in building a $224 million industrial park in Haiti's northern corner.

The Better Work report also faulted factories on pay. Among the 23 factories that have been assessed more than once, only seven improved their average noncompliance rate, it said. Fourteen factories had higher noncompliance rates and two remained the same.

The garment factories have seen a greater union presence over the past several years.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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