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Haitian student studies job satisfaction as poverty solution

Nemdia Daceney
Lindsay France/University Photography
Nemdia Daceney works in Mann Library on statistical research of employment in Haiti's free zones.

Nemdia Daceney, who discovered a lack of worker satisfaction in one of Haiti’s “free zones,” continued her research at Cornell this summer with the hope of informing Haitian public and private-sector officials to change their policies.

“In Haiti, I may be the first student, or the first economist, to do this research,” said Daceney, who is completing her undergraduate thesis in economics at Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince. “The current government believes in the fact that the free zones can provide employment and drive economic development. But to me, we can’t talk about only one aspect. Economic growth also refers to the human dimension.”

Daceney worked under the advisement of Nancy Chau, a professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management whose research is in international trade, regional economics and economic development.

“She came here all ready with collected data and an idea, and all I needed to do was to come up with an interesting question for her to investigate,” Chau said. “She’s finding some really interesting things regarding the importance of mismatch [whether workers’ previous experience matches their job] and vocational training in quit behavior.”

Daceney surveyed workers in CODEVI, a free zone operated by an apparel manufacturer in Ouanaminthe in the north of Haiti. The survey considered several variables – “where they came from, the number of children, education, union membership and working conditions,” she said.

“It’s officially the first free zone that Haiti has,” Daceney said. “It created a lot of employment – it has 6,700 employees – but when I went to Ouanaminthe for my survey, I realized that the workers are not really satisfied with the conditions. Around 60 percent of the workers say they want to quit.”

Haiti first established free zones for manufacturing in the 1980s, as an economic development strategy to employ more Haitians. The area around Ouanaminthe was untouched by the January 2010 earthquake that left more than 1 million Haitians homeless, after which many people migrated to the region to seek employment. After the earthquake, the creation of more free zones was encouraged.

Many CODEVI workers are forced to work overtime, Daceney said. “We do have labor laws, but are they respected? Is there supervision? … This quit behavior makes me wonder if really this idea of the free zone is sustainable.”

She believes that if free zone administrators and the government work to improve working conditions, it could lead to better training and increased worker retention and productivity.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. I think that the government could be inspired by my study to create or design more policies that could combat the spread of poverty.”

Daceney, who intends to pursue a master’s degree, said she spent much of her time at Cornell doing statistical research in Mann Library. Since Mann’s summer hours end early, she would cross campus and write her research in the evenings at Olin Library. “I’m really honored to be here,” she said.

She was prepared for study in America after three years of leadership and English language classes through the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) – which provides scholarships to create “a community of young professionals and leaders who promote a more just society in Haiti.”

Daceney’s six-week sojourn to Cornell was supported by the Ming Tian Fund for Haiti’s Tomorrow, established by alumna Carol Rattray ’78. The Ming Tian Fund first partnered with HELP in 2012 to bring a Haitian student to Cornell during summer session. Initially funded by a group of Chinese artists after the 2010 earthquake, the Ming Tian Fund targets immediate relief work, civic art and revitalization, and recovery and reconstruction efforts in Haiti.

“I really hope that students like her will have more opportunities to continue their studies at Cornell,” Chau said. “They’re really the cream of the crop … and their passion for learning will truly be an inspiration.”

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Joe Schwartz