(This article on Grand Rapids-based company H.H. Cutler and trade policy in the early 1990s is re-posted from the Independent newspaper, The FUNdamentalist Nov/Dec 1993)
The company was one of 66 that sought and received an exemption from that embargo. During that three months it imported 335,508 pounds of apparel sewn in Haiti; about 20% of all USA apparel imports from Haiti during that period.
H.H. Cutler, with annual sales of nearly $200 million, was also one of 26 companies that signed a Washington Post ad in December of 1991, which said in part: “Please, Mr. President, give America and Haitian workers the best Christmas present yet by allowing them to go back to work. By lifting the US embargo, you will save lives and lay the economic groundwork for a permanent, stable democracy.”
This was in the face of repeated calls for a tough embargo by Aristide, who was elected President with about two-thirds majority.
H.H. Cutler had already been sending much of its cut material to the Caribbean for sewing, jobs that might have been kept in Grand Rapids. Spokesperson Martin Hale, quoted in this area’s monopoly newspaper over two years ago, said, “It’s a matter of survival, part of our strategy for remaining competitive.” Nothing was said about the horrible conditions that the company was promoting and using.
Greg Lambert, H.H. Cutler Secretary-Treasurer, said in a telephone interview that Cutler has facilities in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico, as well as Haiti. Specifically referring to Haiti, Greg Said, “We’re providing jobs for people. Every worker there supports 10 people. Without those jobs those people would be on the street.”
Asked why Cutler sought to end the embargo, despite apparent popular support for it, Greg said, “The embargo didn’t help people.” The way to help them is “to try to give them jobs so they can support their families. That’s how you build an infrastructure, is jobs.”
Responding to a question on what the company does about the extremely low wages, Greg’s response: “That’s a political situation, we tend to stay out of political situations. We don’t want to find ourselves in the middle of that.”
Judy Zylstra, who lived in Haiti for over four years while her spouse was field director of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee there, offered one perspective on love wages. “We needed to hire Haitians for things like carrying water. Clothes got washed by hand and we hired people to do that. Most people, if they had work at all, made about a dollar a day. We found, if we paid much more than that, that our employees were targeted.”
Judy commented on companies in Haiti, “I guess my problem comes with companies that go there so they can get cheap labor. If a company is making a great profit, it has an obligation to give back to the country, helping them drill a well, so they can get clean water; helping them build a clinic, so people have access to health care.” Companies should be “establishing local industry, or having local people take over leadership.”
Greg Lambert said that Cutler has met with the Caribbean-Latin American Council to provide “humanitarian relief” – schools, jobs, etc. He also stated that there is “no abuse, no child labor” and “ We are very careful who we work with.”
Locally, Cutler has worked to keep costs low at the expense of workers and taxpayers. Norm Stiles, President of Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, says of the company and the workers there, “Years ago our union represented them. They sort of folded up to get the union out, but then they opened up again, and have been non-union ever since.”
An August 16, 1991 fire destroyed much of the company’s Oak Industrial Drive facility, idling its nearly 700 workers. It was the third fire in two years, all of which were determined to be arson. One ex-Cutler worker said that somebody committing arson at the plant was not surprising.
Shortly after the fire, Cutler sought and received authorization from the City of Grand Rapids for up to $5 million in industrial revenue bonds for rebuilding. And shortly after that the company sought and received tax abatements from the City worth at least $1 million, and perhaps considerably more, over their 15 year lifespan.
The Grand Rapids City Commission, recently confronted with what their support of this company means in terms of labor conditions in Haiti, had no comment.