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10 Aug 2023

Keetra Bippus/Cronkite Borderlands Project, Cronkite News

Dominican Republic: Haitian workers on Central Romana sugar plantations report harsh working & living conditions; incl. co. comments

See all tags Allegations

"Haitian workers endure harsh living, working conditions in company settlement", 10 August 2023

[Batey]...is defined as a settlement around a sugar mill.

For workers who live in the bateyes of Central Romana, the largest sugar cane company in the Dominican Republic, it’s not just a settlement, it’s home, albeit in a company-owned shantytown that’s difficult to leave because for most of them, there’s nowhere to go.

Most workers in Dominican sugar cane fields are Haitian immigrants without documentation or people of Haitian descent whose Dominican citizenship was retroactively stripped by the Dominican government in 2013, making them vulnerable to deportation and dependent on private companies for places to live.

Many infants born in Dominican hospitals to Central Romana sugar cane workers, or cañeros, have no Dominican birth certificate or residency papers because their parents don’t have legal status in the country. They aren’t citizens of Haiti either, making them stateless. The lack of documentation makes it difficult for them to go to school or find work elsewhere — leaving generations of workers to toil in the fields and live in the bateyes...

Central Romana, the largest exporter of Dominican sugar to the United States, has come under recent scrutiny because of its labor practices.

At the end of November, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a withhold release order (WRO) on all sugar from Central Romana, stating that sugar imported from the company won’t be allowed into the U.S. The WRO was issued “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor in its operations.”

The CBP cited five indicators of forced labor in issuing the order: “abuse of vulnerability, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime.”

The order continues to block U.S. imports of sugar from Central Romana...

In a press release, Central Romana said that the company has “great respect for every individual who works for our company, regardless of role, and in that regard, we have always provided appropriate wages, housing and other benefits.” The company did not respond to requests for further comment.

Workers living in the Central Romana bateyes told the Cronkite Borderlands Project of their struggles at work and in the bateyes.

Esther...said her husband works six days a week for 10 to 13 hours a day cutting sugar and he makes about 2,200 pesos, or about $40, every week — which isn’t enough to buy enough food for their five children.

If her husband stops working for the company, she said they will be evicted from the company-owned housing. Since she doesn’t have any legal documentation to stay in the country, her children lack documents, too. They are stuck at Central Romana...

Without documentation her children can’t attend public or private schools not owned by the company. Currently, her kids attend school that Central Romana provides in the bateyes, she said.

“Next year, we are going to be in trouble...[t]hey are warning me that in seventh grade if you don’t have documents, you just stop there.”

Even if children do attend public schools, they cannot receive their diploma without documentation. The COVID pandemic further complicated things with online learning since many batey communities lacked access to electricity and internet, a report by the U.S. Department of Labor said.

Life in the bateyes

An electricity generator sits roaring in front of the two-room home where Roseline lives. The generator is a workaround to charge people’s phones since their batey has no electricity...

Central Romana’s company website said that its bateyes are equipped with electricity, but no individual home we visited had electricity.

The workers said to keep their homes in the bateyes they must work in the fields or the mills. When workers get too old to work, they said, they are evicted.

James received a notice to pack up his things and leave his batey: he was being evicted. The reason? He had left his job at Central Romana and was working fixing homes in other bateyes with a coworker but he was still living in the company’s batey.

“They sent (the eviction) to me to make sure that I come back to that house and stay there,” James said.

He came back to Central Romana to work and he said the company left him alone and he was allowed to stay in his batey.

Becoming too old or too weak to work in the fields spells eviction. Esther said that she has seen many elderly workers evicted from their homes in the bateyes...

Central Romana said on its website that it provides workers with health services. Ricardo gets his medication from a public hospital, he said...

Multiple workers interviewed mentioned immigration officials grabbing and deporting undocumented migrants, including targeting bateyes, which they said is a recent development...

The company has a labor union, Sindicato Unido de Trabajadores, that cañeros (sugar cane workers) pay dues to, but it doesn’t represent their interests, Jacobs said.

“It only covers a percentage of the workers and it doesn’t help them… It’s a union for workers in name, but only defends the company,” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t defend workers.”...