There is a long and terrible history of exploitation and abuse of Haitians and Haitian descended people in the Dominican Republic's sugar industry.
Translation by Franchesca Araujo, originally published on November 24.
The United States government has sanctioned Central Romana Corporation with a ban on imports of raw sugar and derived products, due to evidence of forced labor to which the company subjects its workers. This measure will be effective as of November 2022. Regardless of the irony of this sanction coming from a country that also exploits migrant labor, for decades there have been denouncements of the extreme super exploitation of labor in the Dominican sugar industry.
An Americas Watch report in 1989 requested the US Department of Commerce to investigate allegations of human rights violations and to reconsider the sugar quota allocated to the Dominican Republic if reforms were not implemented. Other international organizations have denounced forced labor in the sugar industry and in retaliation to this international pressure, [Joaquín] Balaguer decided to massively deport Haitian migrant minors and senior citizens. For its part, Luis Abinader's government continues to recycle old tactics regarding Haitian migration, such as hate speeches, massive repatriations without due process, impediment of entry of pregnant Haitian women, family separation, as well as repression and denial of medical attention to Haitian women migrants in childbirth labor.
The US-owned company Central Romana is the country's main agro-industrial and sugar producing company. Sugarcane continues to be cut by hand because mechanization involves a high investment, so cheap Haitian labor is essential. Workers do not always have the necessary equipment to protect their eyes, hands and legs. The use of machetes for cane cutting is very dangerous; there have been countless cases of workers losing limbs during their work. Those who have suffered work-related accidents have not received adequate compensation. Evidence of forced labor is duly recorded in various investigations (see Verité, 2011). Many sugarcane workers suffer other medical consequences, such as alopecia from exposure to the sun, loss of vision and respiratory illnesses because it is common to burn the cane before cutting it. The use of pesticides also presents a high risk to the health of the workers.
Central Romana also restricts union rights and freedoms. The Union of Sugarcane Workers (UTC) cannot hold meetings at the company's facilities and, as a result, must move to other bateyes (villages where workers live, surrounding the sugar cane fields) to exercise their rights to free assembly and association. The Central Unidos union on the other hand is part of the company itself and takes a monthly fee from the cane cutters, who are not part of the union leadership. The other employees are not required to pay this fee. Within this context, Central Romana employees say that during the country's National Regularization Plan, the company did not provide the necessary support for the regularization of Haitian migrants. [The National Regularization Plan was implemented in 2013, the State's purported goal was to allow for an important sector of immigrants to access visas. In practice it didn't achieve this goal, amongst other reasons because of lack of cooperation from employers such as Central Romana.]
Some of the factors that indicate a condition of forced labor include restrictions on movement, isolation, physical violence, intimidation and threats, as well as abusive living and working conditions, to name a few. The presence of forced labor in the Dominican sugar sector is historical and irrefutable. The working conditions of sugarcane cutters continue to be based on super exploitation and poverty wages. Despite the fact that Central Romana states in its report that it has invested millions of dollars to improve the living and working conditions of its employees, wages for the cutting and hauling of sugar cane continue to be deplorable and in need of adjustment. As of May 2022, the payment per ton (1 ton = 2000 pounds) of sugarcane at Central Romana was $217 Dominican Pesos [~$4 US]. A report published by the Washington Post on October 13, 2021 shows that a worker who cuts 10 tons of sugar cane is paid only $1,995 Dominican Pesos (less than USD$37).
Jesús Núñez, coordinator of the UTC, said he agreed with the decision to sanction Central Romana. The UTC demands better wages, freedom of union association, as well as immigration regularization for cane workers and their families in order to put an end to the current forced labor conditions. Central Romana has a privately owned policing entity and members of the UTC have denounced how on occasions they have been subjected to abuse of power, arbitrary imprisonment and even threats when attempting to leave the batey. Central Romana's guards have tried to prevent senior sugarcane workers from going to demonstrations to claim their pensions. Workers reported that they have on occasion had guns pointed at them when trying to leave the batey. The UTC rejects this extreme surveillance and repression. It also denounces that when sugarcane workers are no longer able to work, they are taken out of and displaced from their homes in the batey after 40 and 50 years of labor.
The UTC demands that they be provided their earned pensions and calls for the humanization of the bateyes and the implementation of decent and dignified work. The pensions of the sugar cane workers and their regularization of residence constitute a historical debt of the Dominican State. Despite the fact that President Luis Abinader promised to resolve the state's failure to give sugarcane workers their pensions, his administration has increased the barriers to obtaining them and has suspended the pensions of 379 sugarcane workers. More than 15,000 sugar cane workers are waiting to receive their pensions. More than 4,000 applications have been submitted and have not yet received a response, despite workers contributing to social security for more than three decades. In addition to the pensions issue, workers face obstacles to access to health care and the risk of being deported.
Central Romana has 101 bateyes where mainly Haitian migrants who work in sugarcane cutting and hauling live. In most of the bateyes people live in overcrowded conditions, without potable water or adequate sanitary facilities. According to Jesús Núñez, 87 of these bateyes do not have electricity or health centers. This late but necessary sanction is an economic checkmate to a company that for more than a century has imposed forced labor in the country, without any sanction from the Dominican authorities. Faced with this scenario, its press release in response to the measure of the US authorities is questionable, as they state that “progress is only worthwhile when it becomes social welfare for all those who build it,” in clear contradiction with what has been evidenced in its more than one hundred years of existence.
Díaz, M. (2022). Barreras en el acceso a la pensión de los cañeros haitianos en República Dominicana. Perspectiva. Fundación Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Available at https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/fescaribe/19209.pdf
Murphy, Z.; Cenziper, D.; Fitzgibbon, W., Shefte, W. & Georges, S. (2021, October 13). How money has flowed from the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic to the burgeoning tax haven of South Dakota. Washington Post.
Verité. (2011). Research on indicators of forced labor in the supply chain of sugar in the Dominican Republic. VERITE, USA: Massachusetts.
Micely Díaz is a social worker and researcher based in the Dominican Republic.