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Labor Dept. finds bitterness in sugar workers' lives

4:09 AM, Oct 4, 2013   |    comments
  • Undocumented Haitian immigrants and other poor workers in the Dominican Republic's sugar cane industry often live in bateyes, rough clusters of company-owned housing that lack adequate sanitation, potable water, electricity and schools.(Photo: Gannett/Mark Curnutte, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
  • Lucner Pierre, a Haitian immigrant working in the Dominican Republic, displays a hand tool he uses to cut sugar cane. (Photo: Gannett/Mark Curnutte, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
    
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SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - With no hope of finding work in his native Haiti, like many before him and since, Lucner Pierre migrated in 1978 to look for a job in the Dominican Republic's sugar industry.

Now 59, he has for most of the past 35 years manually cut sugar cane with a machete, dangerous field work which damaged his sight and turned his skin the creased texture of animal hide. He receives only minimal medical care and lives in company housing, sharing a bug-infested room with seven other men during harvest season, earning in 12 hours, he said, "just enough to eat."

"I can't send money home," Pierre said. "I can't go home."

Situations similar to Pierre's are a reason that a U.S. government report released last week validates public submissions made by human rights activists about deplorable living and working conditions for undocumented Haitian migrant workers and other poor laborers in the Dominican Republic's sugar cane fields.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Trade and Labor Affairs "found evidence of apparent and potential violations" of labor law and workers' rights called for in the free trade agreement signed in 2004 by the United States and the Dominican Republic. The labor department also announced last Friday the commitment of another $10 million over the next four years, bringing the amount invested since 1998 to $16 million, to reduce child labor, expand labor rights and improve working conditions.

"Working together with the Dominican government, we look forward to making a real difference in these workers' lives," U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in the report.

Among violations cited: poor working conditions related to minimum wage; 12-hour work days; seven-day work weeks; and occupational safety and health concerns such as the lack of potable water, absence of a minimum work age and indications of forced labor, including unlawful overtime performed under threat of deportation.

The labor department, which published the report on its website last week, responded to complaints first brought in December 2011 by Catholic priest and worker advocate Christopher Hartley. His parish included dozens of cane field villages, known as bateyes, where Hartley served for nine years as a church pastor before his 2006 removal by the local bishop.

"Fair trade, the fight against modern-day slavery and standing up for our commitments regarding fundamental human rights and freedoms are all issues of deep concern to the American public," Hartley wrote in an email from Ethiopia, where he has worked since 2007.

The United States imports about 220,000 tons of sugar annually from the Dominican Republic, a relatively small amount compared to other countries and the single-nation high of 1.9 million tons imported in 2012 from Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet the Dominican Republic's export quota to the United States is greater than the five other nations - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - that are part of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

The Dominican government, prior to publication of the labor department's report, responded to specific questions about Hartley's submissions by calling them "allegations that are far removed from the actual status of workers in the agriculture sector and the protections afforded their rights. ... The unsubstantiated allegations presented by Father Hartley are the unfortunate consequence of a personal agenda."

Officials at the Dominican Republic's embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to repeated requests for comment after the report's release. However, a leading U.S. importer of sugar did respond Thursday to the report's findings.

"Our company is committed to ethical sourcing, and we are spending time reviewing the Department of Labor's findings concerning the Dominican Republic," Brian O'Malley, president and chief executive of Domino Foods, Inc., said Thursday in a statement released by the Florida-based company.

Domino Foods is part of ASR Group, the world's largest sugar refining company, which imports sugar from many countries, including the Dominican Republic. Domino Foods is the sales and marketing company that sells sugar in the United States under the brand names Domino, C&H and Florida Crystals.

O'Malley said it is the company's understanding that the report does not claim violations by the Dominican Republic of labor regulations in the CAFTA-DR.

"Working conditions and workers' safety are of paramount importance to us," he said, "so we are encouraged by the fact that although the Dominican sugar industry disputes the report's finding, it has said it will consult with its organized labor unions and the Dominican government to develop an effective response to any genuine issues reflected in the report, such as assuring that all wages, hours and benefits are accurately documented for follow-up analysis by the U.S. government."

Still, said Hartley - who remains widely vilified in the Dominican Republic - the labor department report is proof of migrant worker exploitation there and should serve as a reminder to Americans that the workers' plight is not a distant phenomenon.

"I think most Americans would be ashamed to know at what price they put sugar in their coffee every morning," he said. Sugar workers "are real people, real children, with hopes and dreams of a better future and of a dignified existence."

The land of opportunity?

About 460,000 expatriated Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, according to the 2013 Dominican National Survey of Immigrants, released in July.

About half of Haitians in the Dominican Republic live largely in isolation in bateyes. They are clumps of company housing or free-standing huts in the middle of cane fields, most often lacking adequate sanitation, electricity, potable water, schools and medical care. Homes surround a crude town square in which the only businesses are lottery booths and privately owned corner stores - known as colmados - stocked with liquor and food stuffs such as rice, at which workers and their families run up mounting debts, according to the new Labor Department report.

The healthiest and strongest workers can cut 3 to 4 tonnallata - about 2,200 pounds each - in a 12-hour shift, usually 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. A ticketer labels the load. A cutter can earn 120 pesos per tonnallata, currently about $2.82 U.S. So in 12 hours of hard labor, the most productive worker will earn between $11 and $12, advocates say.

Even this process, worker advocates say, has been changed to benefit sugar companies and take from workers. Sugar fields are dotted with dozens of abandoned and rusting weigh stations, where wagons filled with cut cane would be hauled and the cane weighed at the end of the day. Now cane is weighed privately -- out of sight of the worker who cut it -- and first allowed to dry overnight, which makes the cane lighter and less costly.

"What is clear is that the worker has no guarantee that he will be paid fully for his work," said Maria Victoria Mendez Castro, an attorney in San Pedro de Macoris and associate of Hartley's.

Yet compared to Haiti, where adult unemployment estimates range from 67 percent to 75 percent, something is better than nothing.

Johnny Young, 28, left Haiti four years ago. On a mid-July day he cut stalks and loaded them onto a wagon with Pierre Johnson, a man born of Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic. He has worked since he was 17.

"I am sorry I came. I am sorry I left my country," Young said. "I left looking for work and a life. I found my death."

Johnson is among the estimated 2.5 million of the 8.9 million people living in the Dominican Republic who do not have a birth certificate. Those without one are either Haitian by birth or the second- or third-generation children of at least one Haitian parent.

"I would like to learn to drive a truck some day," said Johnson, 24, who has not attended school and cannot read or write. "I don't have any paper.'

In the Dominican Republic, the prized paper is the cedula, the state ID card that essentially is a driver's license that also allows people go to school, register their children for school and get medical care and insurance.

"I am not free on the streets, I can not go to school and can not work, I can not marry legally or travel," said Isidro Belique, 24, who lives on the batey Canutillo near the town of Quisqueya. "Inside my own country, I cannot move. Civilly, I am dead."

Worker advocates focus on pension, documents

Native-born Haitians and their children are at the bottom of a racial caste system in the Dominican Republic, where the standard citizen is considered a mulatto. Dislike and distrust between Haitians and Dominicans run deep in these former French and Spanish colonies on the shared island of Hispaniola.

The Dominican government defends its policy not to grant rights to children of Haitian parents born on its soil, children who are nonetheless "fully entitled to Haitian citizenship and as such ought not to be considered stateless," a government spokesman said on condition of anonymity. Half of children born in Dominican hospitals in border regions are to Haitian mothers and are a major reason that 15 percent of the Dominican national health budget goes to treating the migrant population, the government says.

Yet the Dominican and Haitian governments are working together with religious organizations to help children born of a Haitian parent in the Dominican Republic receive a Haitian birth certificate and passport. The Scalabrinian Association, a Catholic order dedicated to helping migrants and refugees, receives money from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Union to work with illiterate workers to fill out forms that are processed by the Haitian consular office. In 2012, 2,000 Haitians received documentation, a number that could reach 5,000 this year, said Idalina Bordignon, a Brazilian nun and the the group's director in the Dominican Republic.

Cane cutters are most concerned with money - what they earn and the government pension they are required to pay into at a rate of 2 percent of their earnings. Most often, sugar companies do not contribute their 7 percent portion of the pension for sugar workers, said Bordignon and other worker advocates.

"On the bateyes, with these conditions, what do the workers have?" Bordignon said. "All the worker owns is his work."

Francisco Roberto Luisa, 69, left Haiti in 1964 and cut cane until 2006, when poor eyesight forced him to retire. The injury occurred when he reached down into the field and a sharp cane stalk pierced his left eye.

"I had headaches, and the company took me to a clinic," Luisa said. "They gave me glasses. It doesn't help."

He stopped working and moved off the batey into a small house with other retired or disabled workers. Luisa said he plants a small garden to feed himself.

"I am still waiting for my pension," he said.

Leon La Fontain, 79, receives a pension of 5000 Dominican pesos a month, or about $125 U.S. Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, he cut cane for 57 years. He supplements his income by cleaning and doing maintenance work in a medical clinic run by a foreign religious organization.

"I know I am very fortunate," Fontain said. "It was the intervention of God."

Labor department: Allow workers to organize

The U.S. Department of Labor, in its recent report, makes a dozen recommendations to the Dominican government to improve the enforcement of its labor laws and to better identify and address labor and human rights violations that affect sugar workers. The labor department will review the status of recommendations in six months and again one year from now.

Even with the victory that the labor department report represents, the majority of Haitians or Haitian-Dominicans living and working in the Dominican Republic don't have documents and won't live to see their pension.

Lucner Pierre, achingly thin except for his muscled arms and hands, says he doubts he will receive a pension or documents in his lifetime.

Inside his darkened room, he described how he uses his machete to cut sugar cane and his hoe to remove weeds. He stopped speaking when he heard children play outside in a poured concrete well. Then they ran off to kick a homemade soccer ball made of knotted rags across a dirt yard. Maybe life will be better for them.

Pierre walked to the wall opposite the window, where he pointed to count the bloody, smeared hash marks of bloated bed bugs he had killed with his fingers.

"During the day, you lose blood working in the sugar fields," said Pierre, his eyes and voice both flat and without emotion. "And at night, the bed bugs come and get what's left of you."

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Mark Curnutte, who covers social issues for The Cincinnati Enquirer, traveled for two weeks in July to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on an international social justice reporting grant.

Mark Curnutte, The Cincinnati Enquirer

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