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“Modern Form of Slavery”: Haitians at Dominican Sugar Plantations Work Under Inhumane Conditions

StoryAugust 30, 2023
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Image Credit: Pedro Farias-Nardi

We go with Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila to the Dominican Republic, where many Haitian migrants and their descendants work on sugar plantations under conditions amounting to forced labor and live in heavily underresourced communities known as bateyes. Many bateyes do not have electricity or running water. We speak to local residents and members of the Reconocido movement, which fights for the rights of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, about the workers’ inhumane treatment and their lack of legal status in the country, as well as about efforts to improve living conditions in the bateyes, such as an initiative spearheaded by the Puerto Rican environmental group Casa Pueblo to install solar panels in the communities. “The right of energy has to be for everyone,” says Casa Pueblo’s executive director, Arturo Massol-Deyá, who shares how his organization is working in solidarity with batey residents to disrupt the cycle of poverty and prepare for climate adaptation.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to look at the Dominican Republic and the plight of sugar plantation workers, including many Haitian migrants, who live under dire conditions.

Last year, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from the one of the major Dominican sugar companies, Central Romana, which sells its products in the United States under the Domino brand. At the time, the U.S. government said it had uncovered, quote, “indicators of forced labor.” One U.S. official decried the company’s practices as, quote, “inhumane.”

Many Haitian migrants work 12 to 14 hours for less than $2 a day, while living in communities known as ”bateyes”, some of which do not have running water or electricity. Well, the Puerto Rican environmental group Casa Pueblo has been attempting to improve living conditions in the bateyes by installing solar panels in some of the communities. Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to talk with local residents living in the communities as the solar panels were being installed. These are some of their voices.

EPIFANIA ST. CHALS: [translated] My name is Epifania St. Chals. I am Dominican of Haitian descent. I am the coordinator of the Reconocido movement here in the region of Seibo.

In the past years, these two governments had a labor agreement with the neighboring country of Haiti. The labor accords that they created brought seasonal farmworkers and the cane cutters to the Dominican Republic to work as cutters and harvesters of sugarcane. The state realized that the cheap labor of Haitian seasonal workers was beneficial to the Dominican economy. This culminated in the construction of bateyes, towns of sugar plantation workers. These plantations have exploited these cheap laborers and forced Haitian seasonal workers into a modern form of slavery.

If the sugar plantation cared about the life expectancy and dignity of workers, they would push to improve the workers’ quality of life. The workers who live inside bateyes are the raw material of the company. As you can see, people in these bateyes have lived for more than a hundred years without electricity. We are in the 21st century. This has made an already discriminated population even more vulnerable.

Casa Pueblo visited to strategize on how to implement solar energy for the bateyes here in the Dominican Republic, mostly in the east. The panels were also installed in the areas of Batey 50 and Batey Brador.

The local government is not interested in improving people’s quality of life. They’re not interested in helping this population have access to education or to have a better life, so the government can keep exploiting them. The company has profited from the cane cutters and seasonal farmworkers, who have lent their hands, strength and sweat to work the sugarcane fields.

ARTURO MASSOL-DEYÁ: [translated] Today we’re working to change this reality without the help of politicians. We’re implementing a sustainable energetic model and establishing a new example of how bateyes should be in the Dominican Republic.

YONNY RENÉ: [translated] My name is Yonny René. I am part of the Reconocido movement. My parents are Haitians. They migrated from Haiti. They are sugarcane cutters. They are sent to remote areas of the Dominican Republic to work.

Every person here works directly with the Central Romana. They face extremely dangerous working conditions. They pay pensions that they later don’t receive. They’re forced to work even though they’re sick, including people in their sixties and seventies. They have to keep cutting sugarcane because they don’t get their pensions, although they have paid for them. They don’t have the right to good healthcare. They don’t have access to public health services. Dominicans don’t welcome Haitians. They even kick them out of hospitals.

JONATHAN CASTILLO: [translated] Due to the slope of the roof, we had to place the solar panel pointing this way, because the sun will shine this way. I couldn’t put them in the other direction, because the panel will not receive sufficient direct sunlight.

FRANKLYN DINOL: [translated] My name is Franklyn Dinol. I’m from the Higuera community, which belongs to the Santa Lucía district. I’m a social activist and human rights defender. I am part of a Reconocido movement, a movement of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

As you can see, the bateyes are communities that don’t have public services, such as water or electrical services and other important resources. Imagine the significance of saying that with this project, bateyes are going to finally have access to electricity. People here haven’t even had the opportunity to learn how to use a computer. Community members here don’t know how to use word processor software. Students don’t have access to computers, tablets or telephones and cannot access a web browser to find information, all of which are essential for the job market or school. We’re also solving that problem also by bringing solar energy panels. We are sending a strong message to corporations and local officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices from Haitian migrant sugar plantation workers in the Dominican Republic. Special thanks to Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila. These people live in communities lacking electricity, but solar panels are now being installed by the Puerto Rican environmental group Casa Pueblo, House of the People, which is a past winner of the Goldman Prize.

We’re now joined by Casa Pueblo’s executive director, Arturo Massol-Deyá, who is back from the Dominican Republic, now in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It’s great to have you with us, Arturo. Talk more about the conditions they face, the companies they’re working for, like Dominican sugar company Central Romana, which sells its products in the United States under the Domino brand, and what you did in the Dominican Republic.

ARTURO MASSOL-DEYÁ: Well, this is an incredible situation. It’s hard to believe that people are living under these circumstances, especially legal migrants that were brought to the Dominican Republic to work on the formal economy. They are producing, in a very lucrative corporation, sugar for the country and for exportation, yet these people are working under forced conditions by design. When you get paid only $4 or less per ton of sugarcane cut, you’re forced to work for longer times. You’re forced to bring your family members to help improve your survival income. And yet, they don’t have minimal conditions for living standards — no running water, no electricity. And this is heartbreaking to see this happening. In addition, they don’t recognize their legal status — no documents. And they cannot migrate. They cannot move forward and improve their quality of life.

What we decided to do was to engage. Charity is not enough. Charity perpetuates reality. We decided to take action in solidarity with the bateyes and with Epifania St. Chals, and we went there to install two units in two separate bateyes, to install a freezer for their food. Now they can produce ice to preserve some of their meat and improve their diet. There’s a new cultural center. They have a TV station, a small kind of cinema for entertainment for the community, lighting. Now they can recharge their equipments and improve, to show that that reality can be transformed right away, immediately. It’s very easy. And the right of energy has to be for everyone, especially in the Caribbean, in which climate adaptation is extremely important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Arturo, could you talk somewhat about the role of the government of the Dominican Republic in terms of protecting migrant workers or not protecting them? Clearly, Central Romana is not only a major sugar producer, but it’s also the site of one of the most expensive resorts in the Caribbean, where tourists from Europe and the United States come there to a five-star resort.

ARTURO MASSOL-DEYÁ: They have the political and the economical power to influence the government. And the government, sometimes they said they’re going to be protecting the rights of this population, and yet they have the immigration police abusing and creating a sense of fear within everyone in Dominican Republic, especially if you’re from Haiti. They are not. They are basically haunting people in that country, not from Venezuela, not from other places, Black people that they think, they believe, they don’t have documents, and they are thrown into Haiti, back. So, the government is not doing their part. They’re not fulfilling their responsibility. They’re doing the opposite, contributing to this human violation crisis. The discrimination is not just discrimination, Juan. We’re talking about extreme conditions of discrimination to this population. And something needs to be done.

We saw the embargo taking place last year from the U.S. from sugar being brought from Dominican Republic. And it’s symbolic. It’s not happening. It’s not doing anything. The market has been rearranged. Now the Central Romana is taking care of the domestic demand for sugar, and the other corporations are sending sugar to the U.S. like on normal days. It is a joke. Not even the local government, the U.S. government, they are backing up with their actions what is going on with Central Romana and the discrimination to the Haiti populations and their descent, first, second, third, fourth generations of people that were born, raised, that have been working for 40, 50, 60 years for Central Romana, and yet they don’t have the basic living conditions, and they don’t get recognized their civil right to be in the Dominican Republic, either.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Arturo, if you can just comment — we just have 30 seconds — on having this access to sustainable power, not relying on the local government and the privatization of power?

ARTURO MASSOL-DEYÁ: Well, I think that the alternatives are out there, but it seems like the government and the corporation wants to keep them without power. It’s a mean of control. We are concerned about the security of Epifania St. Chals and the people from Reconocido and also from the people from the community that participated, actually, in the installation of these solar panels. So, we want to hold accountable the government and the corporation for the safety of all of them. We have to change this reality, and the alternatives are accessible.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, House of the People, speaking to us from Puerto Rico, just back from the Dominican Republic. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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