Nearshore Americas

As Haiti Struggles to Build Services Centers, its Neighbor Could Fill the Void

Political instability and persistent economic problems have prevented Haiti from modernizing its contact center industry, including plans of attracting Canadian and French outsourcing clients to set up call centers in the country. If it combines its track-record and its growing competitive advantage of French speaking Haitian immigrants, the Dominican Republic, who shares the island with Haiti, could enhance its positioning as a multi-language nearshore hub and grab the Francophone clients that Haiti has so long coveted.

Haiti’s service industry is still underdeveloped. Despite the government’s plans to jump-start the sector by 2015, the country is a long away from becoming a nearshore outsourcing hub. After an earthquake ravaged the capital city and most of the country’s industrial capabilities in 2010, reconstruction efforts centered on rising Haiti’s profile as a potential for investment, declaring the country “open for business”. Haiti hosted the Invest in Haiti Forum in 2011 alongside the Clinton Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 2011, highlighting profitable business opportunities in the country for potential investors. A $181 million Parc Industriel de Caracol was built last year in with the support of the IADB and the US government which, when fully operational, is expected employ 1,600 workers in different activities, including call centers.

However, high political unrest has delayed progress, even prompting international donors to pause funds disbursements pending political and institutional advancements. Efforts to propel economic growth are concentrated in apparel manufacturing, tourism, and agribusiness, some of which enjoy preferential access into the US, and that the country has some expertise on. But very little has been done in the way of providing incentives for developing the BPO sector. According to Ricardo Merores, who heads Davos International, a small operation in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian government has not prioritized the industry’s development, and its potential is still not fully grasped by the local legislators.

Digicel Haiti employs the bulk of call center employees from an operation which mostly provides services to the French-speaking Caribbean countries like Martinique and Guadalupe. Otherwise, there are just a handful of small call centers in and around Port-au-Prince, tending to local clients.

Dominican Steps Up? 

Things look different to the East. Although the country’s population is Spanish-speaking, proficiency in French is on the rise owing to the constant inflow of Haitian immigrants. The Dominican Republic enjoys relative macroeconomic stability, a favorable regulatory environment, and the political scene is stable. “Special free zones”, which include software and information technology services as well as BPO capabilities are on the rise, especially since the country has proficient English-speakers owing to its proximity to the US and a booming diaspora.

Operators in the DR are attempting to benefit from the presence of Haitian laborers in the country by offering additional benefits for free-zone enterprises willing to relocate to the Dominican-Haitian border. For example, Dominican power group Grupo M, a textile free-zone giant, moved its operations to the Dominican-Haitian frontier in order to take advantage of especial tax incentives granted while also combining its technical expertise with Haiti’s cheaper labor.

However, there are no provisions in place meant to gauge skilled French-speaking Haitian laborers toward Dominican special free-zones. Migratory processes are complex and expensive – records are inaccurate and outdated, and the government has recently began to enforce tough migratory policies, which include denying national identification cards to Haitians residing illegally in the country, which leave companies seeking to hire un-naturalized immigrants to bear the costs of nationalization. Laurus International, a 600-employee contact center in the DR which has reined in large international contracts the likes of Sprint and Netflix, offers a sponsorship plan, sharing the costs of nationalization with the employee.

Skills shortage also poses problems for the BPO and services industry in general. The country constantly lags in indicators as to the quality of primary education and technical training. Labor regulation is outdated, and the local business sector has been trying to modernize the labor code for years.

Dominican call centers have already begun to seize the increasing availability of French-speakers in the Dominican Republic. Laurus has realized this opportunity and are integrating French-speakers into its labor force.

Laurus currently employs around 40 Haitian French-speakers, and intends to crank up to 500 within the next few years. According to Rudy Ganna, the call center’s President and CEO, the availability of fluent French speakers is impressive.

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The quality is also good, says Ganna. Haitian Creole speakers have a natural adaptability for French dialects such as Quebec and Arcadian French, which is crucial in outbound service to Canadian clients. Next up for Laurus – roadshows in Canada, targeting financial services and telecoms. “The cost advantages for Canadian companies is huge”, remarked Ganna.

The bulk of call centers, however, mostly offer sporadic and short-term services in French. According to Veronika Ogando, the Aftercare Deputy Manager of the CEI-RD, the Dominican Export Agency, while Dominican call centers have advantage of hiring fluid French speakers relative to other countries in the region, the contracts are mostly short-term, for example, geared at seasonal programs like political campaigns.

Susana Martinez

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