Haitian cane-cutters struggle

Little has changed in the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic since the 1870s - including how workers fare.

Large-scale sugar production began in the Dominican Republic in the 1870s. In many ways, little about the process has changed since then: The sugar cane still grows tall, wild, and sweet, and Haitian laborers - poor, desperate, and hungry - still work day in, day out, to cut it.

The Haitian workers, then as now, typically live in bateyes - company towns located within the sugar plantations. Some have electricity. Most lack running water. There are no phones, no playgrounds, and no mattresses on many of the rickety beds. The workers earn, typically, the equivalent of $2.50 a day, out of which they often must pay a percentage for company social security and pension funds - money, they say, they never see again.

Until this year, salaries were paid not in cash, but in vouchers, which then could be exchanged, with commission taken out, only at the company store. The work is as hard as the pay is bad: The workers stretch and bend for about 12 hours per day in the tropical sun, cutting down the cane, stripping off the leaves, chopping it into small pieces, and piling it up. They wear no protective gear and must buy their own machetes - and pay for sharpening them.

Boss men on horseback come to check on their progress. Tractors drive up every few hours to take the cut cane to a processing plant.

There are no breaks here. Still, the situation is better than what many Haitians face back home. Haiti, a country of 8 million, is about half the size of the Dominican Republic, which has roughly the same population. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its Gross National Product - a measurement of the goods and services the country's citizens produce - is less than one-quarter that of the Dominican Republic. Unemployment stands at roughly 75 percent - compared with 17 percent in the Dominican Republic. Political instability in Haiti and increasing violence in the capital over the last few years have pushed more Haitians into the Dominican Republic. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million Haitians live here today, most of them illegally. That's nearly 1 in 9 of all Haitians who live on Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

At the very beginning, the labor force on these plantations was predominantly Dominican peasants who, because of the availability of alternatives, could expect fair wages. But an 1884 slump in sugar prices resulted in a wage freeze and a subsequent labor shortage that was quickly filled by immigrants: first by Cocolos from Britain's West Indies colonies, and later Haitians.

As Haitians became the major labor force on the plantations, the Dominican Republic began entering into bilateral agreements with its neighbor to ensure the continued supply of these seasonal workers. Cane-cutting begins in January and lasts through July.

In the 1960s, the Dominican Sugar Council (Consejo Estatal del Azúcar) was tasked with recruiting, by force if need be, the necessary cane cutters for each harvest from across the border. Even so, the Dominican government continued to engage in large-scale summary deportations, expelling Haitians from the country at the end of the sugar-cane harvest - sometimes right before payday.

It's a practice that continues: Companies threaten to "call immigration" on workers if they complain or try to organize unions.

Sonson Kadisa has been working the sugar fields for three years, since he was 12. He sold his family goat back in Haiti to pay for passage here, praying he could find work and send home cash to help his destitute family.

He sucks on sugar cane for breakfast, snacks on cane for lunch, and usually eats beans and rice for dinner. He stopped going to school when he was 10.

"I know something is wrong here," he says. "But if we complain, the owners will call immigration on us and then where will we be?"

Father Christopher Hartley, a Roman Catholic priest who ministers to the workers in St. José de los Llanos and has helped move hundreds of families to better living accommodations, says that because of recent media attention and pressure, conditions have improved very slightly in the past year. Wages have risen, cash is paid instead of vouchers, and marginally better school programs are being instated.

"And yet, this is far from good enough," he says. "Very far."

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