A US trade preference introduced to help Haiti back to economic growth following a devastating earthquake nearly three years ago has contributed to a "substantial" increase in apparel exports this year.

Nearly $18m in Haitian apparel was exported under the Earned Import Allowance Program (EIAP) in the first nine months of this year, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said on Friday (14 December).

This is around 4% of Haitian apparel exports to the US - and is a marked increase over the $350,000 exported to the US under the duty-free provision last year.

The GAO said increased use of the programme may be due to growing awareness of companies already producing apparel in Haiti that their on-going trade activities may qualify for additional benefits under EIAP.

The EIAP initiative is part of the Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act of 2010. Under this scheme, for every 2-square-metre equivalent (SME) of qualifying fabric a firm imports to Haiti, it earns a credit to export 1 SME of apparel produced in Haiti to the US duty-free, regardless of the source of the fabric.

In this way, EIAP is designed to both aid Haiti's apparel industry and encourage the use of US-manufactured inputs.

The report said the number of special trade credits Haitian apparel firms received grew from 8m SME to 42m SME. In addition, exports of Haitian apparel to the US under the EIAP have grown faster than non-EIAP exports.

Other provisions available to exporters include the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE II) Act and the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA).

Under HOPE II provisions, exporters can import most types of apparel duty-free, regardless of the fabric's source, without being required to purchase any kind of qualifying inputs or to register for a programme. 

According to data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), apparel imports into the US from Haiti fell 9.2% to 194.8m SME in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period a year earlier.