An American Problem

In 2013, as part of an article about a report from the U.S. Labor Department, USA Today shared the story of Lucner Pierre who lives near San Pedro de Macoris. Lucner migrated to the Dominican from Haiti in 1978 to work in the sugarcane fields and since then has spent the better part of the last 38 years cutting sugar cane with a machete 12 hours a day, while only making enough to survive. USA Today reported that the work “damaged his sight and turned his skin the creased texture of animal hide.”

Today I went to Monti Cristo, a Haitian village outside of San Pedro de Macoris which is about a 45 minute drive south from the MGM compound in Hato Mayor. While we were unpacking our “clinic,” an older Haitian man, Domingo, probably in his 60s stumbled into the room. Amidst all of the chaos, no one noticed him. I approached him and asked “¿Qué necessita?” (What do you need?) He was trembling and in a high pitched voice managed to say “le duele” (it hurts). He was having severe chest pain that radiated into his left shoulder. I took his blood pressure–196/94. Very high. He was having a hypertensive emergency. Our doctor agreed. We explained this all to his daughter and said that he needed to go to a hospital immediately. Later that afternoon, he turned still in pain and hypertensive. His daughter said he refused to go to the hospital, although it is more likely that they didn’t have the means to do so. We did what we could for him–gave him eye glasses for his diminishing eye sight (he was completely blind in one eye), some medicine to lower his BP, acetaminophen for his pain and prayed with him. Eventually we had to explain that there was nothing else we could do.

Often our hearts go out to those who work hard all day in the sugar cane fields, but what happens to those who no longer can work. What happens to Lucner and Domingo? They do not receive a pension. They do not have the money to return to Haiti–and let’s face it, there is nothing there for them anyways. Their bodies have been destroyed by the sun and the machete. They have back pain, cataracts, hands as rough as sand paper. When the sugar cane companies are done with them, they merely dispose of them.

After years of human rights activists filing complaints with the Labor Department about the conditions in the Bateyes, they finally released a report in 2013 which stated numerous violations of the free trade agreement between the United States and the Dominican Republic including indications of forced labor, poor working conditions related to wages and hours, occupational safety and health concerns, and child labor. At the same time, the Labor Department committed to giving another $10 million dollars to the Dominican government over the next four years to improve working conditions.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez stated in the report, “working together with the Dominican government, we look forward to making a real differences these workers’ lives.” Four years have pasted since this report. San Pedro looks the same. Las Laura’s, Margarita, Village 14, Batey 50, Monti Cristo, Eskadura, Vasca, Experiental, Las Callas (all Bateyes I have visited) look the same. Where did the $10 million dollars go?

Christopher Hartley, a worker advocate who helped raise awareness about the Bateyes, wrote in 2009, “Fair trade, the fight against modern-day slavery and standing up for our commitments regarding fundamental human rights and freedoms are all issues of deep concern to the American public.” Yet, we buy Domino sugar, one of many U.S. companies that sells Dominican sugar, and continue to give money to the Dominican Government without ensuring that it is used to improve the working conditions. This is not a just a Dominican problem, but an American one too.

Curnutte, Mark. “Labor Depart. Finds Bitterness in Sugar Workers’ Lives.” USA Today. Oct 3, 2013.

This project is supported by funding from a Middlebury College Community Engagement Cross Cultural Community Service Grant.

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