Children Lost to The Cane Fields

By , William G. O'Neill is deputy director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York. Theresa A. Amato is a lawyer and consultant to the Lawyers Committee.

THE first thing you notice is that the machete is half as tall as the frightened person holding it. The machete seems so big because the person holding it is so small; the person is a child. He is afraid because he does not know where he is, only that he is not in his native country, Haiti. He is on a state-owned sugar cane plantation in the Dominican Republic. The machete is for cutting cane, something he is forced to do 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Dominican government agents, known as buscones, recruit Haitian children and adults to cut cane. These Creole-speaking Haitians and Dominicans, some with links to their respective armies, use a variety of lies to lure Haitians to the Dominican Republic. They promise easy work with pay in United States dollars. After crossing the border, buscones hand their recruits over to employees of the State Sugar Council and the Dominican army.

All the Haitians, even the children, are given a form contract they cannot read or understand either because of their own illiteracy or because of the contract's atrocious Creole translation. Some contracts have already been "executed" with someone else's thumbprint. After a perfunctory medical exam, government buses take the Haitians to their assigned cane plantations.

Most arrive with only the clothes on their back. They must immediately start cutting cane to survive. The work is backbreaking for strong men, yet children as young as eight years old work in the fields. In early February, we interviewed two 14-year-old boys. A buscone had told them they "would gather eggs in a henhouse and be paid in dollars." Instead they were cutting cane seven days a week. They were miserable and wanted to go back to Haiti but had no money. Even if they had, they would not be allowe d

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to leave.

The Dominican State Sugar Council has its own army of guards who patrol the fields looking for cane cutters who have escaped from their plantations. They also search buses and cars and return Haitians or anyone who "looks Haitian" to the nearest plantation.

Conditions on the plantations are inhuman. Children sleep in overcrowded barracks made of concrete. Potable water, electricity, latrines, and cooking facilities are nonexistent. Disease is rampant, medical care and schooling for the children inaccessible. Most cane cutters never see cash, and after the harvest have nothing to show for six months of labor.

The Dominican government denies violating cane cutters' human rights. It points to a decree passed in October 1990 requiring individual labor contracts, forbidding those 14-years-old and under from cutting cane, and calling for improved living conditions on the plantations. Since issuing a decree in November 1990, which prohibits intermediaries from recruiting Haitians, the government asserts that buscones no longer operate. They are wrong.

The Dominican government's cosmetic changes were enough to convince the US Trade Representative (USTR) that the Dominican Republic was "taking steps" to guarantee worker rights. In late April, the USTR decided to continue granting trade benefits to Dominican exports to the US.

Under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), the US allows duty-free entry to designated products from "beneficiary developing countries." The Dominican Republic exports goods worth approximately $220 million under the GSP program. The Dominican government also has the largest US quota for sugar imports.

The US could use its leverage to press the Dominican government to eliminate worker rights violations. To date, the Bush administration has declined to exercise its influence.

The USTR's decision sent the worst possible message to the Dominican government that issuing decrees and proposing labor code reforms is enough. Trafficking in children and forced labor continue despite all the decrees and labor code reforms.

The spotlight must now shift to the US Congress. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs is considering a bill that would withhold $1 million in aid unless the president reports that the Dominican government has taken steps to "improve respect for the internationally recognized human rights of Haitian laborers engaged in the sugar cane harvesting industry."

By passing this legislation, Congress can send a message to the Dominican government that action, not just words, is necessary. It's already tough enough for children in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Swinging a machete all day under a broiling sun robs them of the one thing they have left: their childhood.

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