First Person

A thin silver lining

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Workers assembling family kits. Photo: Oxfam
Workers assembling family kits. Photo: Oxfam

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 29.

As devastating as the earthquake was for the people of Port-au-Prince, for some of them, there’s the thinnest of silver linings: jobs. Not necessarily long-lasting ones, but at least a few weeks’ worth of work that will put money in their pockets and help them weather the tough times ahead.

That’s how it is for 19-year-old Montinard Jean-Baptiste, who landed a job in an Oxfam warehouse not far from the airport, loading and unloading a stream of goods to help some of the people left homeless by the quake.

Jean-Baptiste is one of those homeless people. He’s now living in a cardboard shelter in a camp of about 600 people right behind the warehouse. With him are his aunt and uncle, who raised him and his four brothers and six sisters. All of them depend on the earnings his aunt makes from selling coffee and bread to people going to work in the morning. She supports the family.

Jean-Baptiste has managed to find some work in the past—for Coca-Cola, which has hired him for truck-loading stints 12 different times. But each time, after three months, the company has let him go. Oxfam is his second employer. And he says with the flood of aid groups pouring into the country—many of them needing help to carry out their work—part-time jobs have become more available.

“It’s important to me,” he says of his work at Oxfam. He plans to share his earnings (200 gourdes a day, about $5) with his aunt and brothers.

Late on a Friday afternoon at this two-story warehouse, there is a hum of activity. A rainbow of big plastic tubs—green, blue, red—fill the yard. Each is now loaded with “family kits” of essential household items like towels, toothpaste, shampoo, cups, plates, and eating utensils.

Men are busy lugging boxes of soap and kitchen implements from the warehouse, while others, men and women at three long wooden tables, quickly unpack them and reassemble the goods into the tubs, which can be used as wash basins. About 45 people are working here now.

Dario Arthur, an Oxfam staffer leading part of the emergency response, says he could have ordered pre-assembled kits to distribute in the camps. But that would have been a missed opportunity to give people jobs. The assemblers, who need to work fast and will be employed for just two weeks, are earning 500 gourdes (about $12.25) a day: a rate substantially above the local minimum wage. Warehouse workers will likely stay on the job for two or three months, as different supplies pass through.

All told, the crew here will put together 10,000 kits. As soon as 100 or so are assembled, off they go in the back of a truck to one of the scattered camps that now dot Port-au-Prince. But Olivier Girault, an Oxfam logistician, says one of the challenges is determining where the need really lies.

Beyond the gates of the warehouse yard, a small crowd of men has gathered. When a truck trundles out with its load, a commotion erupts: The men are clamoring for the goods, saying they are representatives from camps where people need help. But Girault says that all the requests need to be checked out, otherwise the kits could wind up in the market for sale—not in the hands of families who could use them.

By the end of the day, a sea of cardboard and plastic wrapping stretches beneath the work tables, all that’s left of hours of frenetic activity. The workers stream out of the gates, and Girault, with a smile on his face, climbs into a truck to head home. Hired just a few days ago by Oxfam and fluent in French, Spanish, English, and Creole, this is the first regular job he’s been able to land since returning to his native Haiti nine months ago.

“It’s good for us Haitians to work for those who can’t work and lost everything,” he says.

Invest in Haiti’s recovery by donating to Oxfam’s Haiti Earthquake Response Fund.

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