In the steamy Pedernales evenings, motorcycles mass on either side of the street near the sliding white gates of D.M. Group International. At 7:30, the doors open with the low wail of the quitting time siren, and hundreds of happy employees walk, trot and scooter home after almost 12 hours of sorting pepe — used clothes from thrift stores in the United States.
Pepe is big business in Haiti, where the American castoffs are worn with elegance by a country lacking brick and mortar clothing stores, roads for transport, or, most importantly, money. Ten years ago the Pedernales-based business supplanted an American-Haitian pepe distributorship that served the women of Ansapit. Now pepe from the Pedernales zona franca (free trade zone) supplies the entire Haitian southeast. Women come from as far as Jacmel, 90 miles away, to buy pepe for resale.
Owned by Dominicans based in Miami, the D. M. Group’s textile factory operates in one of the DR’s 47 free trade zones, where companies enjoy 100 percent exemption from all taxes, duties, charges and fees affecting production and export activities under Promotion of Free Zones Law No. 8-90. According to a 2009 Free Trade Zone National Council report, of the 533 companies operating in the DR’s free zone parks, 43.2 percent are from the United States, and exports from all companies totaled USD 3.785 billion.
Meanwhile the average D. M. Group employee earns 5,000 pesos a month, or US $127.74. The company earns this same amount for each sack of pepe that it sells to the women traders of Southeast Haiti, including those I met in Ansapit. All of the woman I spoke with said they either lose money or break even selling the company’s merchandise, because its employees skim off the best product for themselves and their friends.
The women pay taxes to the Dominican Republic that are collected at the Zona Franca and paid at the border immigration office before the delivery truck crosses to the Haitian side. Once through the border gate, the women pay taxes again to Haitian customs officials housed in an office-cum-shipping container. Women say they must also pay a $1,000 pesos bribe to the Zona Franca clerks to have their shipment ‘expedited’ in less than three months’ time.