AUGUST 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 8
How Rawlings Uses Haitian Women to Spin Profits Off U.S. Baseball Sales
by Allan Ebert-Miner
Standing barefoot, wearing loose, sleeveless blouses, 1,000 Haitian women rapidly extend their thin, black arms toward the ceiling to tighten the stitches, hand-sewing baseball after baseball at the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When they clock-out in the evening, they have stitched 30,000 horsehide balls - entirely for the U.S. market.
No one plays the game in Haiti, yet this small Caribbean country is the world's largest exporter of baseballs, manufacturing virtually all of the balls used in the United States. Last year Haiti turned out more than 15 million of them.
The Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is the chief baseball manufacturer in Haiti, possessing an exclusive 10-year contract to make all the baseballs used by the National and American leagues in the United States. Rawlings Haiti had sales of $63.5 million in 1981.
Rawlings pays its workers - predominantly women - on average $2.70 a day for producing between 30 and 40 baseballs. That amounts to about seven to nine cents a ball. In the United States, Rawlings sells one baseball for $3.50-$4.00: 50 times what the company pays its workforce to manufacture the ball!
Lodzil Benita worked at the Rawlings factory for 12 years. She is in her late twenties now and came to the U.S. in August 1981, aboard one of the numerous rickety crafts that braved the treacherous waters between Haiti and the United States one year ago.
"I worked from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day," says Benita, recalling her days at Rawlings Haiti. "I usually sewed two and a half dozen balls a day," and got paid "about $1.00 a dozen."
"It would cost a fortune to produce baseballs in this country," says Tim Voss, production manager for Rawlings, explaining why the company manufactures in Haiti, the country in the Western hemisphere with the lowest wage levels - minimum wage: $2.64 a day.
Rawlings uses Haitian labor to perform the last functions of production. The company sends the parts - the center, which is yarn tightly woven around a cork core, two leather covers per ball, and white, red or navy blue thread - to Haiti, where Haitian women dampen the leather covers to stretch them out, hand-dip the covers in a cement-like glue, and then staple them to the cores. The final step occurs at the workbench. As a vise grips each ball, Haitian women stitch it together with both hands. The finished product Rawlings then reimports to the U.S.
"Rawlings is one of the oldest industries in Haiti," says Johnny Callaha, a member of the Association of Haitian Workers in New York. "It was established when `Papa Doc' Duvalier came to power." (Duvalier ruled Haiti as a dictator from 1957 until his death, when his son Jean-Claude, "Baby Doc," took over. "Baby Doc" Duvalier currently rules Haiti.)
Baseball manufacturing is the second largest assembly industry in Haiti, behind textiles, which also serves U.S. markets. In terms of sales and employees, Rawlings is the third largest company on the island, following only the Haitian-American sugar refinery, Hassco, and Allied Industries, and American-owned electronic equipment company. Rawlings, however, is not the only sporting goods factory in the country; MacGregor, Wilson, Dudley Sports, Home of Champions, and Brunswick Royal all have operations there.
The assembly sector is the most dynamic of the Haitian economy. While employing no more than 5% of the working population, this sector contributes more than 12% of Haiti's gross domestic product, and accounts for at least 35% of Haiti's exports, according to the Minority Rights Group, a British research organization.
With its low wages and close proximity to the U.S., Haiti provide U.S. investors with the opportunity to make extraordinarily high profits: a 30-50% return on equity, says the Minority Rights Group.
The Haitian government of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier encourages U.S. companies to invest in Haiti, not only by offering cheap labor. The government grants foreign companies a number of incentives, such as tax holidays - long stretches of time during which companies need not pay any taxes. "Incentives are an integral part of the Haitian posture as a nation of unlimited business opportunities," says a spokesperson of the Haitian industries promotion bureau.
Companies like Rawlings also benefit from Haiti's lack of labor rights. The only legal trade unions in Haiti are those run by the Duvalier government. Strikes are illegal.
"There is nothing" in the way of benefits at Rawlings, says Callaha of the Haitian workers association, "even though Rawlings uses a foam rubber material which contains fibers that can get into workers' lungs."
So the next time you go out on the baseball diamond or sit at home taking in a game on the TV, remember: a Haitian woman must work for four days to earn what million dollar sluggers like Don Parker or Dave Winfield make in 40 seconds - the time it takes to hit a hand-sewn ball out of the park and then round the bases home.
Allan Ebert-Miner is a freelance journalist living in New York.