Cane cutters work overly long days for poor pay in violation of Dominican labor laws and international agreement
This is the first story in a two-part series. Read the second story, about the Fanjul brothers’ political donations in the U.S., here.
BATEY LOS PELAO, Dominican Republic — When night falls on the sugarcane fields, only a few lights come on in the cane cutters’ homes. Most don’t have electricity. Some workers don’t even light a candle. Moonlight catches their still, seated figures, recovering from long hours of swinging a machete under a boiling hot sun before going to bed, getting up and doing it all over again. They are part of an army of Haitian laborers who for decades have made up the backbone of the Dominican sugar industry. And from the start, much of that sugar has gone to the United States. The DR is consistently among the top suppliers to American markets, with more than 100,000 tons of sugar shipped to U.S. ports last year.
Haitians in the DR have faced harsh conditions for over a century. They were the targets of a massacre ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937, and they endured periodic mass deportations throughout the 20th century. Today there is a renewed threat of expulsion for hundreds of thousands of Haitians and their descendants who were not able to meet a June 17 deadline to register for legal papers. The Dominican foreign minister says tens of thousands have returned to Haiti voluntarily, but according to media reports and the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch, people are being forced out, including some born in the DR.
And then there’s the treatment of cane workers. Conditions have improved from a hundred years ago, when physical force and indebtedness were the norm, but many observers are shocked by how bad things still are on the plantations. A transnational free-trade agreement, the DR-CAFTA, which went into effect here in 2007, was supposed to improve all of that. The Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement encourages trade and investment between the United States, Dominican Republic and five Central American countries and was promoted as a tool to improve worker conditions. It would be “tough, effective” and “the best ever” on enforcement of labor laws, said the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. But “the best ever” hasn’t changed the day-to-day for Jonas Pierre, a Haitian immigrant and cane cutter in Batey Los Pelao. “Life here should be better than in Haiti,” he says, “but the work isn’t good. They don’t treat us well in this country. Sometimes you go a week without enough to eat.”
Although the International Labour Organization approved the DR’s labor laws for the trade deal, in 2001, the United Nations body had called Dominican sugar “one of the most widely documented instances of coercive labour contracting over the past two decades.”
When, in 2011, a Spanish priest formerly based in the DR filed a complaint under the labor chapter of the agreement, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) conducted an investigation. It found that the Dominican government didn’t seem to be adequately enforcing labor laws in the sugar industry with regard to minimum wage, working hours and overtime pay, minimum age of workers and more. The DR government, however, denies these charges.
Dominicans have seen their neighbors as a threat going back to the 1800s, when the Haitian military repeatedly invaded. Yet for the last century the DR has had the upper hand. Trujillo’s massacre got little response from Haiti’s government, and in 1952, the Dominican dictator signed an agreement with his Haitian counterpart, Paul Magloire. In it, Magloire agreed to a transfer of labor that amounted to selling tens of thousands of Haitians every year to Trujillo’s government to work in nationalized cane fields. Many stayed on in the DR, trying to get a foothold in Dominican society. But today Haitian immigrants and their children say they’re still targets of what’s known as antihaitianismo, manifested in police stops, denial of official documents, occasional attacks by mobs and even lynchings.
But the migration of Haitians continues, because in the DR, the average daily wage is $11 — more than five times that of Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country. And though young immigrants tend to shun cane work, in which wages are among the lowest in the DR, older workers are largely stuck in the fields, without the means to retire or find less grueling ways to support themselves.
One of the reasons retirement is out of reach for many is a 2001 change in social-security law to exclude immigrants without proper documentation. For decades, workers like Pierre had deductions taken out of their wages and paid into the Dominican social security system, but now they cannot access the pensions that they have been contributing to for all these years. The Dominican government has said it will pay out to those who submit proof that they contributed, but 18,000 cane workers submitted those papers months ago with no word back yet, according to an organization advocating for them.
“Imagine,” says Pierre, “working in this country for 35, 36 years, going to the [pension office at the capital] and, as a big thank-you, they don’t tell you anything.”
Pierre’s story is typical. He came across the border from Haiti in 1981, hoping to work a season or two, make some money and return home. But, he says, he never made enough to move back, and now at age 67, he is still cutting cane, unable to afford retirement or even roll back his hours.
What’s more, he can’t take solace in the belief that his children will have a better life. In 2013, the Supreme Court retroactively withdrew citizenship from anyone born in the DR to undocumented immigrants. Pierre’s second son, Felipe, was born here 17 years ago. He’s been weeding the fields for two years already. Felipe works in the mornings and then walks more than two miles to school. He dreams of being a lawyer some day, but he doesn’t have Dominican papers, which puts other jobs, as well as college, out of reach. He wants to work in the fields to help his family, but for Jonas Pierre, it’s tragic. “You leave Haiti to cut cane, and you grow old cutting cane,” he says. “Then you see your child cutting cane. … That hurts me.”
The precarious status of cane workers also makes the DOL’s efforts that much harder, according to Kimberly Ann Elliott, an expert on trade deals and labor at the think tank Center for Global Development. Labor is “a hard set of issues for any external actor to influence,” she says, and the best bet is to “assist, build up, empower civil society groups within the country,” but working with undocumented workers is “the hardest yet.” They are simply too vulnerable.
Batey is a Taino term and once meant an indigenous village center. Today it refers to the cluster of humble, company-owned worker homes on dirt paths, with maybe a store or two selling staples, surrounded by plantation. There are hundreds spread across the southern Dominican Republic, owned by four companies — Central Romana (which produces more than half of the country’s sugar), CAC, CAEI and CEA (a state-owned enterprise) — and by colonos, or independent plantation owners, each with an exclusive contract to sell to one of those sugar companies. (The colono-owned bateys are called colonatos.) The bateys range in quality, the better ones offering primary schools, consistent drinking water, a bit of electricity, functional latrines and front-yard gardens planted by residents. Others have none of those things.
Batey Los Pelao, a colonato contracting with Central Romana, looks as if it hasn’t changed in decades, if not centuries. The grimy cinder-block homes abut a dirt road and train tracks on which oxen pull carts full of cane. A single spigot supplies water to the community. When it runs dry, residents drink from a nearby river. Of the few dozen homes, only a few — one of them the manager’s — have been wired for electricity. There are no functional latrines, so residents use the cane fields, which stretch into the distance until mountains rise too steep for planting. At night, fires burn to make for faster cutting in the morning, the wind sending the flames high and carrying the sound of crackling stalks.
Whether the cane is burnt or not, cutting it is exhausting work. Pierre heads to the fields at 5 a.m. and finishes at 6 p.m., with maybe an hourlong break, Monday through Saturday. He works with a team of nine other cutters, each with his own row to tackle, and a supervisor. They cut and load each worker’s cane into an oxcart and take it to a weigh station on railroad tracks nearby.
Workers are paid by the weight of what they cut, which means older and sicker people earn less or work longer hours. Often both. Pierre says he makes the equivalent of $3.34 per ton and usually cuts a ton a day. That’s far below the three tons a day cut by more able-bodied workers. It still works out to 8 cents more than the minimum daily wage for cane cutters, but that minimum wage is for an eight-hour day. Pierre says he works 12-hour days. The legal limit for cane cutting is 10 hours, and for anything over eight, the law requires overtime pay, which Pierre says he doesn’t get. The DOL has been demanding that cutters’ hours be monitored, and at least one company, CAEI, the country’s second-largest sugar producer, recently started complying, but most don’t. So payment varies tremendously from plantation to plantation, and overtime pay is rare.
After the harvest, in the “dead time” between July and December, most cane cutters stay on the plantations, performing other tasks such as weeding and planting. They work fewer hours but also make even less money.
Las Papita, another small batey, is just a few miles away. There, in blistering heat, a man stands yelling at workers to keep up the pace, while another slouches on a horse, watching the bustle in silence. José (not his real name) is the man on the horse. As supervisor, he must make sure that each worker in his 10-man team cuts in his allotted row and that the crew fills a trailer every day. If the men do not, he says, no one gets paid.
José wants the scene to be photographed. “I want people around the world to see how people work in the cane fields,” he says, “how people are killing themselves working so hard.” He lives with his father, who cut cane for 50 years and retired without a pension or savings. José tried cutting cane when he was 15, but it was too hard, he says, and he only lasted a season.
The workers start at 6 in the morning and end at 6 in the evening, José says. They are supposed to go inside to rest and eat lunch when the sun is hottest, but some work straight through. It’s a matter of survival: “Here, you work to eat. You aren’t working so you can get some new pants,” he says. “If you’re sick, you need to borrow money to solve your problem, because what you make is only enough to eat.”
Over at Batey Los Pelao, Pierre knows well the need to work through illness. Last spring, he saw a doctor about a bad reaction he has been having to the heat of the midday sun. He gets stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea, but the doctor was unable to diagnose it, so he tries to work through it. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “It gets worse every day.”
It’s a common story. Pierre’s next-door neighbors are 78-year-old cutter Elias Merisié and his elderly wife, Mercedes, who doesn’t recall her age. She used to bake and sell bread but can’t work anymore because of a motorcycle accident injury to her arm. If she needs medical help again, it will be tough because she’s undocumented and isn’t on the state insurance plan her husband is able to access with his Central Romana worker ID. When either one gets sick, Merisié says, in a mix of Creole and Spanish, “Nou rete aguantar hasta la muerte,” or “We just keep holding on until we die.”
Even when workers are injured on the job, their medical leave might not be covered. Seventy-five-year-old Andrés Michel lost an eye cultivating cane meant for Central Romana more than two decades ago. He was injured when the hoe he was wielding sent a rock into his eye. Sitting on the bed in his tiny, one-room, cement home, holding a pocket-sized Bible in heavily calloused hands, he says the company paid for his medical bills, but didn’t provide compensation for the work he missed or for his reduced productivity. He says he still works, now for a colono, from 6 a.m. to noon daily, but can’t make ends meet. With no family in the DR, he relies on friends for food. After the interview, he asks the Al Jazeera team if it can spare 50 cents.
The DR-CAFTA complaint over Dominican sugar labor conditions was brought by Christopher Hartley, the Spanish priest. In it, Hartley said the Dominican government was failing to enforce labor law and asked that the DOL immediately investigate what he called “egregious” labor law violations, including child labor, unsanitary living conditions, hazardous working conditions and denial of medical benefits and pensions.
In response, the DOL launched an investigation and in 2013 released a report that described “apparent and potential violations of labor law.” It also provided a detailed list of recommendations for making Dominican government inspections more robust. Six months later, the agency reported that the DR government had “not yet indicated plans or taken actions to address most of the Public Report’s recommendations.”
Valentín Herrera, the Dominican director general of labor, seems bored by questions about U.S. criticism of sugar industry working conditions. “Look,” he says, “the DR has always been the target of complaints related to possible labor issues.” Herrera insists his government is enforcing labor laws. If someone is getting less than minimum wage or has any other problem, he says, they can file a confidential complaint. (None has thus far been filed, according to his office.) Last spring, in its latest review, the DOL acknowledged that in some parts of the Dominican sugar industry, changes do seem to have been made, though “efforts and progress vary widely across companies.” Some progress is visible on plantations of CAEI, which is owned by Grupo Vicini, a family business that, when it started in the 1800s, made its fortune on sugar production but has since expanded widely.
“Ten years ago we decided we wanted to follow international standards of production,” says Campos de Moya, the financial manager of Grupo Vicini and a board member of CAEI. “We feel that we have achieved a lot of progress in the past few years.” De Moya says it’s about time the U.S. stopped “punishing” Dominican sugar. He calls the criticism out of date and a lazy refrain of previous accusations. “They do something called cut-and-paste,” he says.
CAEI recently implemented changes that the DOL has advocated, such as posting the minimum wage on signs in bateys, verifying work hours, and providing safety equipment and drinking water in the field. The DOL welcomes these moves, but they fall far short of industrywide action, as CAEI represents only a fifth of total Dominican sugar production. What’s more, even on the CAEI plantations, workers live in extreme poverty, in isolated bateys, with difficulty accessing schools for their children.
Back at Batey Las Papita, there’s no sign of modernization. Homes are run-down, mostly without any electricity, and there are no usable latrines. The batey does have a consistent water supply, but residents have to walk a few minutes down the road to reach it. Batey Las Papita is a family plantation inherited by Jean Giraldi, who grew up in a ramshackle house by the water pump but now lives in Santo Domingo. He confirms what José says, that if the workers don’t fill a trailer in a day, they don’t get paid. He says that’s because it costs him to bring it in, and he’s also under pressure to supply 5,000 tons of cane a year to Central Romana — a goal he hasn’t met in recent years due to drought.
Regarding minimum pay and overtime, Giraldi says it is disrespectful to monitor people’s time, and he’s not worried about the hours of work or pay. “You can make more if you cut more,” he says. “There are people who cut eight tons in just one day.” But what about the older workers who can no longer cut as fast? “That’s their problem,” Giraldi says. “Cutting cane is for strong people.” But his logbook shows that many workers cut only three or four tons in a week, and he admits that someone logging eight tons in a day is likely getting help from someone off the books.
Asked if representatives of the Dominican Ministry of Labor ever come to inspect his site, Giraldi laughs. “No, they are not interested in how we’re treating the Haitians.”
But he has seen people from the U.S. government. “This year they came and asked the questions you’re asking,” he says. “There was a meeting to put a fine point on the treatment of Haitians: how many hours a day they work, if they live in a place with water and lights,” he says, “which I would have to pay for.” He says that if the U.S. government wants the Haitians to have electricity, it should come and pay for it itself.
The DOL clearly has a leverage problem. If it decides to pursue a claim under DR-CAFTA, success isn’t guaranteed. Some companies are in blatant violation of laws requiring posting the minimum wage, monitoring hours, providing safety equipment and drinking water, and maintaining hygienic living conditions. Other alleged violations are less clear, in part because it’s hard to prove how many hours people work. Also, the DOL is accused by some researchers of having an overly broad definition of forced labor and of exaggerating the prevalence of child labor. Finally, the biggest problems that cane workers face — extreme poverty, lack of options for the sick and injured and the lack of opportunities for workers’ children — don’t necessarily result from illegal treatment.
Even if the DOL proves laws have been broken, there are few solutions, according to critics. Elliott of the Center for Global Development says the problem with the labor and environment sections of DR-CAFTA is that they were never intended to be effective. “[They] are in there because they’re necessary to get deals through Congress,” she says. “It’s really all about politics and not about how to raise labor standards in these countries.”
Hartley’s great frustration since filing his complaint has been the lack of enforcement in the DR-CAFTA labor section. “It’s not that I wasn’t warned,” he says. DOL employees told him “sanctions are not on the table. Nothing is going to happen on account of not complying.” Still, it is disheartening, and Hartley is convinced that pressure from the sugar lobby in Washington has made things worse, including causing an 18-month delay in the release of the DOL’s initial report.
Hartley has contacted the U.S. State Department and Congress as well, but he believes sugar companies are likely to obstruct any action. “The sugar lobby is a critical player in all this,” he says. He points a finger at Grupo Vicini, which hired the international law firm Patton Boggs to file a defamation suit against documentary filmmakers who reported on Hartley and Dominican sugar-labor conditions. He also points to the owners of Central Romana, whom he calls “the most resistant to any kind of change” for their thousands of workers, as well as being a major player in the U.S. sugar lobby.
Central Romana is the biggest employer and landowner in the Dominican Republic. Its owners, the Fanjul brothers, live in Florida, where they also grow cane and co-own the largest sugar-refining company in the world, Domino Sugar. They spend more than a million dollars a year lobbying Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and contribute hundreds of thousands to legislative and presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s hard for cane workers like Jonas Pierre and Andrés Michel to challenge such power. Their demands are basic but remain unmet. Pierre has repeatedly taken a bus to the capital to demand his pension, so he can retire and his sons can stop working in the fields, but he has still not received it. Michel says he’d like better treatment from management, but when he presented his employer with the medical report showing he had lost his eye on the job and asking for compensation, they turned him down, saying it was too late. So now, he says, “I’m just living my life as I can.”
Additional reporting by Euclides Cordero Nuel.
Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Editor’s note: This article was corrected to reflect that it was the military dictator Paul Magloire, not his more infamous successor, Francois Duvalier, who entered into the 1952 agreement with Rafael Trujillo. Duvalier’s rule began in 1957.