By Socialist Workers’ Movement of the Dominican Republic
In a press release dated July 19, 2022, the head of the Ways and Means Committee of the US Congress, Earl Blumenauer, and Dan Kildee, co-chair of the Congressional Sugar Caucus, reported that an investigative commission found evidence of forced labor in the Dominican sugar industry. The congressmen noted the terrible living and working conditions in the bateyes (communities adjacent to the sugar cane fields where haitian workers and their families live), especially at Central Romana, owned by the Cuban-American Fanjul family, and that a ” culture of fear appears to permeate the industry, where company supervisors, armed guards, and officials from an unrepresentative union monitor workers both in the fields and in the bateyes”. They mentioned that the workers were threatened so that they would not talk to the parliamentary commission.
They added that there are more than 135,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent denationalized by the Dominican State and that the migratory situation of thousands of sugar industry workers who have been in the country for decades has not been regularized, which makes them vulnerable to labor abuses and forced labor. But contrary to all their denunciations, the congressmen expressed support for the Abinader government, to whom they attributed reform intentions and a supposed declaration that the economy will not progress if workers’ rights are not recognized. They even spoke of a supposed fight against corruption and called on the Biden administration to continue strengthening its ties with Abinader.
In short, the congressmen discovered nothing that has not been denounced for decades by activists and human rights defenders, nothing that is not widely known inside and outside the country. Like many other US commissions in the past, they acknowledged that forced labor persists in the sugar industry to the detriment of Haitian and Dominican workers of Haitian descent, but supported the same government that imposes these conditions of super-exploitation, hand in hand with US capitalists such as the Fanjul family, owners of Central Romana.
Historically, the US government has been an accomplice and promoter of labor abuses in the Dominican sugar industry, since the first US invasion a century ago. In 2011 there was a complaint filed by Catholic priest Christopher Hartley with the US Department of Labor about forced labor in the Dominican sugar industry, in violation of the terms of the DR-CAFTA free trade agreement, but no sanctions have been imposed. Since 2013, several commissions have been sent to verify labor conditions. And despite the hypocritical and contradictory statements resulting from these visits, sugar capitalists in the Dominican Republic continue to enjoy the largest import quota with preferential tariffs in the US.
Exports of raw sugar from the Dominican Republic reached $113 million in 2020. More than two-thirds of US preferential tariff sugar imports from the Dominican Republic have been supplied by Central Romana.
The corrupt sugar lobby, which pays more than 10 million dollars annually to both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as the geopolitical interests of US imperialism, which maintains a relationship of semi-colonial domination with the Dominican Republic, keep unchanged the commercial privileges of the companies that export sugar to the US.
Reports expose US complicity
In 2021 the Pandora Papers scandal revealed that President Luis Abinader has a fortune worth millions in tax havens, which are a way to pay less taxes and hide business connections. They also revealed that tax havens in the US are the destination of fortunes produced with semi-slave labor in the Dominican sugar industry,* as is the case of the inheritance of the family of racist politician and former Central Romana executive, Carlos Morales Troncoso.
Award-winning reporting by Mother Jones and Reveal showed that the ASR Domino sugar refinery in Baltimore processes raw sugar shipped by Central Romana, some 200 million pounds annually, and supplies refined sugar to brands like Hershey. Thus, the US candy industry becomes an accomplice and beneficiary of the activity of sugar emporiums that exercise paramilitary territorial control over vast areas of the Dominican Republic, functioning as a state within the state. Neither the companies nor the State pay pensions to sugarcane workers, despite deducting their social security contributions for decades. The workers receive around three dollars per ton of cane cut, are exposed to deadly agrochemicals without proper protection, are subjected to violent and arbitrary evictions in the bateyes and are even denied the possibility of having subsistence crops on the land where they live precariously, generally without electricity and water services.
In November Central Romana evicted some 230 people from Batey Hoyo de Puerco and demolished it, shortly before the visit of a U.S. government commission. (See the story here.) In October, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee had asked Biden to investigate human trafficking, forced and child labor, hazardous working conditions and other labor violations in the Dominican Republic’s sugar industry. That is the context of the most recent visits by US Congressional commissioners, which, however, are neither new nor have they changed anything in more than a decade of alleged investigations.
Racist politicians and businessmen in defense of semi-slavery
Sugar capitalists and their politicians were quick to respond to Blumenauer and Kildee. Central Romana Corporation of the Fanjul family, the Consorcio Azucarero de Empresas Industriales of the Dominican oligarchic Vicini family, and the Consorcio Azucarero Central owned by Dominican and Guatemalan capitalists, published a paid advertisement claiming to comply with UN and ILO “human rights indicators” and to carry out “important actions of social responsibility which are reflected in the living conditions of their agricultural personnel.” “We are pleased to know that the US congressional delegation shares our same intentions, along with the Dominican government, to protect the rights of agricultural workers,” they add cynically. Beyond the clumsiness and nervousness that it reflects, the communiqué is also evidence that these companies count on the impunity granted to them by the government and the complicit silence of the national private media.
Right-wing senators also came out in defense of the super-exploitation. Bautista Rojas Gómez of the People’s Force complained of an alleged “disrespect to sovereignty” and said he did not have “an enslaver attitude” (sic). José del Castillo of the PLD hatched a conspiracy theory by speaking of an “agenda… against the country”which he attributed to Latin American and Asian competitors for the Dominican sugar quota in the US, but without mentioning any company or country, and mentioned an alleged interest in eliminating import quotas in the US. In reality, the US industry benefits from low-cost imports with preferential tariffs. Senator Ginette Bournigal of the ruling PRM, went further and in addition to denying super-exploitation in the sugar industry also denied that there were stateless persons in the Dominican Republic. Bournigal is known for her anti-democratic fanaticism: she proposed a bill to rename the Puerto Plata Cable Car with the name of the dictator Joaquin Balaguer. PLD leader Dominguez Brito, former Minister of Labor, assured that forced labor does not exist in any branch of the Dominican economy. In fact, the existence of forced labor is documented not only in the sugar industry, but also in construction, commerce, domestic work and various agricultural sectors of the country.
It is time for solidarity
In February of this year, Abinader decreed an increase in the minimum wage for agricultural workers in the sugar industry. The Socialist Workers Movement (MST) and the Sugar Cane Workers Union (UTC) warned that the decree would not benefit the majority of workers, who depend on payments per ton of cane cut. In the same vein, they demanded that the payment per ton be increased to at least 580 pesos (equivalent to 11 dollars per ton, currently paid just over 3 dollars per ton). “The struggle against semi-slavery, precariousness and super-exploitation, for decent wages, union liberty, pensions, access to health care, decent housing, and an 8-hour workday continues. With the solidarity of the Dominican, Caribbean and U.S. labor movement, as well as the anti-racist movements, it is possible to wrest greater gains from this government,” they said in a joint statement.
But Abinader has not limited himself to gimmicky public relations measures. He has also gone on the offensive, suspending the payment of 379 pensions to retired Haitian sugar cane workers who had won recognition of that right under previous governments.
In November of last year, MST demanded “the confiscation of Morales Troncoso’s fortune and that it be used to pay compensation to the sugar cane growers and the communities of the bateyes… (that the US government) cease its complicity with semi-slavery in the Dominican sugar industry, conditioning the continuity of the sugar import quota at a preferential rate on respect for human rights, union freedom and the labor rights of the sugar cane workers and other workers in the sugar industry”.
In the current situation, international attention has once again focused on the inhumane labor conditions in the Dominican sugar industry. Unfortunately, the sectors of the Dominican center-left present in Congress have not taken advantage of their spaces of representation to amplify the denunciations of the Haitian sugar industry workers and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
However, there is a growing unity of action by Dominican anti-racist organizations and the Haitian diaspora in the Dominican Republic. This alliance, including sugarcane workers’ organizations such as the UTC, can come together with trade union, anti-racist and leftist organizations in the US and other countries to push for an international campaign in solidarity with the Haitian sugar industry workers, for decent wages, union freedom, social security, immigration regularization, access to health and education, restitution of Dominican nationality to Dominican workers of Haitian descent denationalized in 2013, among other demands. Such an effort can, together with the struggle of the sugar industry workers themselves, defeat the semi-slavery labor conditions.
Original publication: https://mst-rd.org/2022/07/30/
* – Oaklandsocialist comments: Tax avoidance/tax havens is intimately associated with offshoring of wealth in general, and the US has become tne Number One destination for such offshoring of wealth. See our article https://oaklandsocialist.com/2022/05/18/russian-and-ukrainian-oligarchs-finding-and-seizing-their-real-assets/ on seizing the assets of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.
Categories: Latin America