Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Dominican Republic

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The Dominican Republic continued to rely on forced labor by Haitians to sustain its state-run sugar industry during the 1990 harvest. With the cooperation of the Dominican military, the State Sugar Council (CEA) operated an abusive system combining unfair recruitment practices and restrictions on freedom of movement to compel Haitians to cut sugarcane for the duration of the harvest season.

The Dominican state sugar industry is entirely dependent on Haitian field labor. Because living conditions for cane cutters are so poor, and pay for the arduous work is so low, Dominicans refuse to cut cane; those employed by the sugar industry insist on working in mills or in oversight and managerial jobs on the plantations. To supplement the part of the Haitian workforce that willingly cuts Dominican cane season after season, the CEA each year must secure thousands of additional cane cutters to harvest the crop before it spoils. Since the pay that it offers is not enough to attract and maintain a sufficiently large force of voluntary labor, the CEA resorts to forced labor.

Usually, the CEA hires recruiters to lure Haitians from their villages and towns in Haiti with false promises of high pay and easy work. Recruiters are paid by the head – as much as $15 to $30 – for each Haitian delivered. The CEA then seizes the recruits at the Haitian-Dominican border with the help of armed Dominican border guards, and holds them until they are transported under guard to CEA plantations.

There are some variations on this pattern. In a few cases, Haitians are effectively kidnapped in Haiti by armed, CEA-employed recruiters and brought forcibly to the border. Some local Haitian authorities – such as section chiefs and border guards – have at times played a role in this forcible recruitment, either by demanding protection payment from recruiters or by conducting their own round-ups of Haitians for transport to Dominican plantations. In other cases, Haitians in Haiti are offered and given less arduous work, such as clearing beanfields, on the Dominican side of border; they are then arrested on the job by Dominican soldiers and brought forcibly to CEA plantations to cut cane.

Once paid for and in military custody, the Haitians are no longer free to return to Haiti, to choose their place of work in the Dominican Republic, or to select the type of labor they would perform, until the end of the harvest. On the CEA plantations, they are told by their supervisors that if they try to leave, they will be picked up by the military and returned to the plantation. On at least one plantation in 1990, CEA supervisors took away the clothing and personal belonging of the Haitians as a method of confining them to the plantation. Once compelled to stay on the plantations, the Haitians are obliged to work to make enough money to feed themselves. The only work available to them is cutting cane.

Typical conditions on the portions of CEA plantations where Haitians are forced to live – the bateys – include no running water, no latrines, no electricity, no kitchen facilities and no medical facilities. First-time Haitian cane cutters live in barracks-style concrete housing, with four to six men in a dark, bare room no larger than eight by ten feet. They sleep on two-inch foam mats, on the floor or on thin metal cots or bunkbeds.

The work day can last from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or longer. Wages are extremely low, leaving most cane cutters unable to save more than $25 to $50 at the end of eight months of work. Pay is determined on the basis of the amount of cane cut. A new recruit who is unaccustomed to cutting cane cannot cut enough to maintain himself, since one pound of beans bought from the CEA stores on the bateys can cost a full day's earnings; such newcomers are dependent on the charity of more experienced workers to survive.

No protective gear is offered for the back-breaking and dangerous work. Medical attention is often unavailable for the frequent, work-related injuries. Time-off is dictated by the necessities of the cane harvest rather than by the needs of the workers. Child labor is widespread.

This exploitive system is deeply entrenched. Successive Dominican governments have lacked the will to protect Haitian sugar-industry workers. Despite numerous investigations and reports of abuse by a variety of sources over the years – including the International Labor Organization (ILO), and a devastating study commissioned by the CEA itself – the CEA has disregarded domestic and international pressure to increase wages and improve working and living conditions, preferring to depend on the less expensive use of deceptive and forced recruitment and coerced labor. President Balaguer has treated the issue as a public relations problem, claiming that reports of human rights violations constitute "unjust propaganda,"7 and are merely part of a campaign by enemies of the Dominican government. The government's typical response to reports of abuse has been to deny summarily that violations exist, and to cite laws that it claims to uphold but does not.

On October 15, 1990, however, the Balaguer government announced a major policy shift aimed at improving the employment conditions of Haitian cane cutters on CEA plantations. The announcement was the first time in recent years that the Dominican government acknowledged any abuses in the sugar industry – if only implicitly – and promised to take steps to mitigate them.

President Balaguer instructed the state labor department to implement individual employment contracts containing specific terms of employment for the cane cutters, including the right to leave and change employment. He also directed the labor department to promote respect for the human rights of Haitian workers, and to monitor and report to him and to the ILO on its progress. In addition, President Balaguer vowed that hsi government and particularly the CEA would take steps to improve living conditions on the bateys. The Dominican President also promised that the immigration status of seasonal or temporary Haitian workers, especially cane cutters, would be legalized.

The announcement was an important first step, which should be implemented. However, it stopped short of directly acknowledging the foundation of the abuses on CEA plantations – the use of force to compel Haitians to cut cane. Specifically, it failed to acknowledge the Dominican military's involvement in guarding and transporting the cane cutters, and conducting arbitrary arrests and round-ups of Haitians. It also did not explain why the Dominican government had refused to allow an ILO mission to investigate worker rights in early October 1990, particularly since the government has now pledged to report to the ILO.

US Policy

As the Dominican Republic's largest trading partner and the largest consumer of Dominican sugar, the United States is in a position to exert significant pressure on the Dominican government to respect worker rights in its state-run sugar industry. In 1990, some important preliminary steps were taken to use this leverage to put an end to the use of forced labor.

Sugar is the main Dominican export to the United States, which continues to allocate the largest segment of its sugar quota to the Dominican Republic. The US sugar quota for the Dominican Republic, which is set by the US Department of Agriculture, was increased on September 12, 1989 from 185,328 tons for the twelve months of 1989 to 333,035 tons for the 21 months from January 1, 1989 to September 30, 1990, a 2.7 per cent increase. It was increased again on April 25, 1990 to 460,997 tons for the same 21-month period ending September 30, 1990, or a 38 per cent increase. This share represents 16 percent of the total US sugar quota.8

In addition, the United States purchases approximately 75 per cent of Dominican exports, having granted the Dominican Republic trade benefits not only under the Generalized System of Preferences, but also under the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the so-called 9802 program (formerly the Sections 806-807 program). The Bush administration also requested from Congress some $53 million in bilateral aid for fiscal year 1991; about $2 million of this was military aid, $12 million was Economic Support Funds, $11 million was development assistance, $23 million was a food grant under PL480, and the remainder was for the Peace Corps.

Despite its substantial interest in the Dominican sugar industry, and its considerable economic leverage over the Dominican government, the US government took little interest in the plight of Haitians forced to work on Dominican sugar plantations until quite recently. Only in the summer of 1989, in response to a petition filed by Americas Watch challenging Dominican use of forced labor, did US Trade Represenative (USTR) Carla Hills begin a review of Dominican labor practices, pursuant to a law that bars trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) to nations that violate internationally recognized labor rights.

The results of this review were published in April 1990. For 15 pages, the USTR listed a series of unrefuted reports of extremely serious violations of workers rights, including a submission from the ILO expressing "extreme concern over the situation of Haitian workers"; a quote from a 1984 book by President Balaguer describing the "new form of denigrating slavery which is practiced at the present time in the Dominican sugar ingenios"; as well as reports from Americas Watch and Dominican groups such as the National Union of Dominican-Haitian Workers and Immigrants.

Despite this compelling evidence of forced labor, the USTR avoided reaching the logical conclusion that GSP benefits should be denied. Instead, she decided to postpone for another year any decision on the suspension of trade benefits and to continue a further review of Dominican labor practicies during that period. The USTR's excuse for not denying GSP benefits was that she had investigated only the sugar industry without examining labor practices in other Dominican industries. The USTR never explained how practices in other industries, where comparable abuses are not alleged, could absolve her of the duty to deny GSP trade benefits to the Dominican Republic until coercive practices in the sugar industry ceased. There is nothing in US law to support the USTR's approach,9 and it is all the more inappropriate in light of the Dominican government's dominance of the sugar industry. Nevertheless, even the decision to extend formal review for another year, with the threat of a GSP cutoff at the end, maintained considerable pressure on the Dominican government to address its use of forced labor.

Further pressure came from Congress. In June 1990, the US House of Representatives gave serious consideration to legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Moakley which would have linked the Dominican Republic's sugar quota to the government's good faith efforts to upgrade working conditions of Haitian cane cutters, end the use of force in their recruitment, and respect freedom of movement and association. Rep. Moakley withdrew the bill from consideration after he received specific assurances from the Dominican Ambassador to the United States, the former head of the CEA, that the Dominican government would respond to his concerns. Rep. Moakley assured the human rights community that he would revisit the question in 1991 if considerable progress had not been made.

The State Department added somewhat to this pressure. Improving on its traditional neglect or understatement of the problem of forced labor in the chapter on the Dominican Republic in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the State Department, in its report covering 1989 (published in February 1990), devoted greater attention to the issue, frequently citing a report issued in 1989 by Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, and Caribbean Rights. Still, however, the State Department had little to say in its own voice to confirm that violations were being committed.

Apart from the country report, the Bush administration issued no public statements on Dominican rights abuses in 1990. A US embassy official in Santo Domingo justified this silence by claiming that it would be inappropriate to comment publicly while Dominican labor practices are under review by the USTR. In the view of Americas Watch, however, a country with sufficiently abusive labor rights practices to warrant formal USTR review should hardly win an exemption from critical public comment once that review is under way.

In mid-August, then Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, who attended the inauguration of President Balaguer as the Bush administration's representative, visited Batey La Mula on the CEA's Boca Chica sugar plantation, just outside Santo Domingo. According to one Dominican press account, Secretary Dole, accompanied by US Ambassador Paul Taylor, spoke with cane cutters and their families about working conditions and child labor. She also encountered a guarda campestre – a CEA-employed guard armed with a rifle – and asked how many cane cutters were on the batey. The visit was an important symbol of concern over conditions on CEA plantations. Again, however, its significance would have been enhanced if Secretary Dole or the US embassy had reinforced the message with a public statement.

At the end of August, Ambassdor Taylor met with the newly appointed Dominican Labor Secretary, Washington de Peña. Although at least one Dominican newspaper reported that Ambassador Taylor used the meeting to express US concern over reports of abuses in the Dominican sugar industry, the embassy maintained that the meeting was simply a courtesy visit.

Despite the shortcomings in many of these steps, the cumulative effect may have played a role in prompting President Balaguer's October 1990 announcement of a program to ameliorate conditions for Haitian cane cutters. The apparent cause and effect – the announcement came just before the opening of the first harvest season following these actions, and coincided with a Dominican submission to the USTR – highlights the considerable potential that the US government has to encourage respect for workers rights in the Dominican Republic. Particularly important in this regard, in light of the futility of past efforts simply to condemn Dominican labor practices, is the potential denial of GSP or other trade benefits, and the potential reduction of the US sugar quota, if the use of forced labor continues.

The Work of Americas Watch

As part of its ongoing efforts to monitor conditions on the CEA sugar cane plantations, Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees and Caribbean Rights, sent an investigative mission to the Dominican Republic in February 1990. The researchers interviewed dozens of Haitian cane cutters, primarily those who were in the Dominican Republic for the first time and thus had most recently experienced Dominican recruitment practices. These Haitians provided first-hand accounts of the forced and dishonest recruitment methods used by the CEA, the restrictions on the Haitians' freedom to leave the plantations, and the subhuman working and living conditions. Interviews were conducted on the bateys at five of the ten sugar mills run by the CEA, in three different regions: Ingenios Consuelo, Porvenir and Santa Fe in San Pedro de Macoris; Central Barahona in Barahona; and Central Río Haina near Santo Domingo. For contrast, the researchers also briefly visited the privately owned Central Romana in La Romana, where comparable abuses have not been reported.

The preliminary findings of the mission were reported to the USTR on March 1 and these findings were reiterated in testimony before the USTR on September 27. The preliminary findings were also submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee, which held hearings on March 29 and 30 to assess the Dominican Republic's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In April and May, several major US newspaper published articles about Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic, based in part on the mission's research. On May 14, a mission participant also published in The Nation, "A Bitter Harvest for Haitians". In June, the findings of the mission were included in the three organizations' second published report on the Dominican Republic, Harvesting Oppression: Forced Haitian Labor in the Dominican Sugar Industry.

7 Geraldino González, "Califica injusta denuncia haitianos," Listin Diario, November 10, 1989.

8 The next largest portion of the US sugar quota, 412,850 tons, or 14.5% of the quota, is allocated to the Philippines, followed by Brazil at 379,798 tons (13.5%) and Australia at 217,401 tons (7.5%).

9 See Section 502(b)(8) of the Trade Act. It is worth noting that the legislative history of Section 502 (b)(8) indicates that Congress intended that countries must be taking steps to afford all five of the internationally recognized labor rights cited in the Trade Act: the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, the right to be free of any form of forced or compulsory labor, the right not to be sent to work before a minimum age, and the right to acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health. In other words, meeting one or even four of the labor rights criteria is not enough to prevent a suspension of benefits if at least one of the five standards is not met.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.