Stateless and Illegal: Haitian Sugar Cane Workers in the Dominican Republic

Bateyes: a Spanish word literally meaning “outbuildings (of sugar [refineries]).” The bateyes located in the Dominican Republic are home to up to a million Haitians. These communities are where Haitians reside after they are brought across the Haitian-Dominican border or rounded up from within the Dominican Republic itself. Within these primitive residences, Haitians are forced to cultivate, cut, and collect sugar cane, the Dominican Republic’s “most important agricultural industry.” The situation on the plantations, the environment, the pay, and the physical work are so torturous that the State Sugar Council (CEA) is incapable of recruiting the number of voluntary workers that it needs to produce the sugar; as a result, the five sugar cane companies in the Dominican Republic recruit, roundup, and kidnap Haitians to do the work for them.

Living spaces in Bateye Margarita, by Lily Rose Longton

The CEA receives assistance from the Dominican military, which, after the buscones—individuals employed by the sugar cane companies—collect and kidnap approximately 30,000 men every harvest season, oversees the process of taking the Haitians “into the bateyes at two or three o’clock in the morning so that they don’t know where they are and cannot escape.” Once inside the communities, any Haitian identification information is taken and destroyed. The Haitians are then “stateless, illegal, and subject to arrest everywhere in the Dominican Republic, except on the plantation.”

Once in the bateyes, the workers and their families are living in conditions that Children’s Hospital Boston’s Dr. Kim Wilson described as “some of the worst conditions [she had] ever seen.” They are forced to “live in shacks that lack cooking facilities, running water, latrines, electricity or medical facilities.” Men, children, and some women, work in the fields for over 12 hours everyday, earning less than 90 cents which they receive in the form of vouchers to use at a store within the bateye. An individual living in a bateye in the Los Llanos area explains that “all the children have parasites and are malnourished” and most people endure physical abuse from the men guarding the plantations for escape attempts. An individual living and working in a bateye in Los Llanos explained that “it hurts to say but you just watch your children die of hunger and you can’t do anything about it.” Gustavo Peña, editor of an online newspaper located in the Dominican Republic, described the situation within the bateyes as “truly reminiscent of medieval times and the days of slavery” and Reverend Christopher Hartely, one of the leading human rights activists trying to help the Haitian sugar cane workers, described the bateyes as “the threshold of hell.

Children walking over 10 miles each way to get clean water, by Lily Rose Longton

The exploitation of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic is an old yet infrequently discussed topic throughout the international community. In the Dominican Republic, the problem is partially rooted in the deep animosity toward Haitians that is an integral part of the majority of Dominican society. However, some relate the more central cause of the stagnant conversation of the human rights violations to economic incentives. This is predominantly powered by the United States’ connection to Dominican sugar production and trade. The U.S. is both the principal trading partner and consumer of the Dominican Republic’s sugar crop. When discussed at high-levels of influence in the international community, reports often lack the relevant information and exact numbers; the U.S. State Department’s latest report on the human rights situation in the Dominican Republic thoroughly downplayed the abuses that the Haitians are currently facing.

However, there are several influential organizations trying to raise awareness for the Haitians such as Americas Watch, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. In the late 1980s the United States Trade Representative finally accepted a petition, filed by the organization Americas Watch, challenging the CEA’s labor rights maltreatments for review. Additionally, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights put into place The 2014 Law on Trafficking in Persons as well as a program to support Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. This change resulted in some successes, such as the improvement of the system of citizen identification. However, the majority of work taking place in support of the Haitian sugar cane workers is done by individuals such as young human rights activists, religious persons, and journalists. Reverend Christopher Hartley and Father Pedro Ruquoy are at the forefront of this activism. Both men dedicated their lives to helping improve the conditions the Haitians face as well as promoting awareness of the situation and have done so with some success. Father Hartley, who is most well known for his documentary The Price of Sugar, was able to set up “feeding centers” in some of the bateyes controlled by the Vicini family’s sugar company as well as bring American doctors into several communities.

A Haitian worker cutting sugar cane, by Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar

Others helping to promote awareness are news outlets such as the previously mentioned online newspaper edited by Gustavo Peña which recognizes the grip that the sugar companies have over the Dominican government and, through trade, the U.S. government. Peña’s newspaper is one of the few that publishes information promoting the rights of Haitian workers. Another influential individual is 2010 International Children’s Peace Prize winner Francia. Francia was born to Haitian immigrants living in the Dominican Republic, and because of a 2013 ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court, which declared “anyone born to undocumented foreign parents or grandparents in the Dominican Republic since 1929 does not have the automatic right to the nationality and hence to a birth certificate,” she was denied the ability to go to school, receive health care, or get government funding for food. After thorough research, Francia was able to obtain her right to an education and is now finishing her last year of secondary school. She now “dedicates herself to the rights of other children in similar situations.”

One of the main ways to help the Haitians working in the Dominican Republic is to spread awareness. As a result of the United States’ close ties to the Dominican sugar trade, there is little discussion of the human rights abuses taking place on the small island in the Caribbean, thus awareness is one of the best ways to help. Additional ways to help the Haitians are by sending letters of encouragement, signing petitions, donating money, and volunteering for organizations focused on going to the Dominican Republic to help.

%d bloggers like this: