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Haitian Sugarcane Cutters Work as Indentured Servants in the Dominican Republic

Haitian workers, fleeing destitution, harvest 6,000 pounds of sugarcane a day for poverty wages in the Dominican Republic. Jacobin talked to some of them.

Haitian sugarcane workers in the Dominican Republic face routine labor violations and mistreatment. (Jaclynn Ashly)

A group of Haitian sugarcane cutters sit under the shade of a tree outside a workers’ barrack in Batey Experimental, a batey — or sugar workers’ town — in San Pedro de Macorís, a province located in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. Workers, young and old, slowly saunter down the unpaved roads, with long machetes dangling from their sides and rubber boots sliding through the dirt, heading home after another long, grueling day cutting sugarcane. The batey is surrounded by miles of sugarcane fields, as far as the eye can see.

“I came here to work on anything I could find,” says Ulvick Vernette, a twenty-three-year-old cane cutter. He is sitting on a rubber tire with his back against the shaded tree, as several other workers cluster together to listen to his story. Vernette speaks in Haitian Creole, as he has trouble communicating in Spanish.

He arrived in the Dominican Republic “under the fence,” or irregularly, about a year ago. He took a bus from his home in Jacmel, a town on the south coast of Haiti, to Ouanaminthe, known as Juana Méndez in Spanish, a border town that lies on the Haitian side of the Massacre River, which partially divides Haiti from its Spanish neighbor on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Ulvick Vernette, a Haitian sugarcane cutter in Batey Experimental, Dominican Republic. (Jaclynn Ashly)

From there, he and ten other Haitians walked for nine days until they reached the northern Dominican city of Santiago. It is a route taken by scores of Haitians each year, who migrate to the Dominican Republic to escape widespread poverty and political instability.

Vernette, like many of those crossing the border to find work, has no documentation. He paid 10,000 Dominican pesos ($176) to various Dominican officials he met along the way to Santiago. “I saw other people going to work in the sugarcane plantations, so I followed them,” Vernette tells me.

But instead of finding better work opportunities, Vernette has become trapped in a cycle of poverty. It is a story shared by all the sugarcane workers here, who face routine labor violations and mistreatment. They are discarded by the sugar companies when they are no longer valuable and left overworked, exhausted, and destitute. The sugar companies have accumulated mass fortunes off the backs of these workers.

Working People and Families at Risk

It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in 425 bateyes throughout the Dominican Republic. Bateyes were built by sugar mills, or ingenios, as temporary accommodation to house Haitian workers, known as braceros, who arrived in the country over the last century to cut sugarcane. Many bateyes, however, have now become permanent communities, with second and third generations of Haitian Dominicans being born in the Dominican Republic.

Haiti was once the richest colony in the Western hemisphere, then called Saint Domingue, and it once produced more than half of the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe. Roughly 800,000 Africans were enslaved and brought to the island to produce this wealth, but they saw very little of it.

Sugarcane piled on oxcarts. (Jaclynn Ashly)

In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic after a decade-long slave revolt. In the decades that followed, however, Haiti faced steep and continual economic decline. This was, in part, due to its lack of diplomatic relationships, a result of its being isolated by the international community. Critically, Haiti was forced into paying enormous “reparations” to their former French slaveholders, which took 125 years to pay off. Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

The Dominican Republic filled the gap in the world’s sugar supply and relied heavily on cheap labor from Haiti to do so. Decades of interstate agreements between Haiti and the Dominican Republic saw thousands of braceros brought across the border to work in Dominican sugarcane fields. These waves of formal immigration lasted until the state-owned industry collapsed in 1986. Since then, Haitian migration has been largely unregulated, often facilitated through buscones, or human smugglers.

Many Haitians brought to the Dominican Republic were convinced they would be paid well and would receive adequate housing and pensions. When they arrived, however, they faced harsh working conditions and rampant abuse — culminating in a government-sanctioned massacre in 1937. Some had their identity documents stolen from them so they could not leave the sugarcane plantations.

In the late 1990s, the state-owned ingenios were mostly privatized. But this did little to bring the sugar industry out of its slump. Workers who had once toiled in the sugarcane fields moved into other sectors, such as other agriculture and tourism, and into the free trade zones. Their children, who were able to access their citizenship rights, went to university and got higher paying jobs. Others, however, have been denied their national identity documents, forcing them to remain on the bateyes with limited job opportunities.

There is no official count of the number of Haitian migrants in the country. The rough estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million, most of whom are undocumented. The number of those employed in the sugar sector has decreased significantly over the years. The Dominican Republic, however, remains one of the top exporters of sugar to the United States, and it receives the largest allocation of raw sugar under the US tariff-rate quota (TRQ) of any country, with a share of around 17 percent.

According to Bridget Wooding, a migration expert and coordinator of the Santo Domingo–based think tank Caribbean Migration and Development Observatory (Observatorio Migrantes del Caribe, OBMICA), those who have remained as cane cutters are mostly the viejos — the elderly cane cutters who remained on the bateyes for decades — and the kongós, who are more recent migrants from Haiti. Cane cutters remain one of the most vulnerable populations in the country, Wooding says, making organizing among Haitian workers for better pay or treatment extremely rare.

Up until about a decade ago, it was common for Dominican soldiers to round up Haitians and force them into cutting sugarcane, with armed patrols ensuring they could not leave the bateyes. While conditions on the sugarcane fields are better now than they were then, the conditions and treatment remain alarming. Various attempts by activists, civil society, and the United States Department of Labor to improve workers’ conditions over the years have thus far failed to yield tangible results.

“We Are Just Animals to Them”

Just four companies run the bateyes and produce most of the sugar in the Dominican Republic: Central Romana Corporation, Consorcio Azucarero Central (CAC), Consorcio Azucarero de Empresas Industriales (CAEI), and the Consejo Estatal del Azúcar (CEA). About half of the bateyes belong to CEA, which is run by the Dominican government.

Vernette has worked as a cane cutter for CEA for a year now. His initial plan was to work enough to raise the $145 it costs to get his girlfriend a Haitian passport so that she could join him in the Dominican Republic. But after a year of working in the sugarcane fields, he has still not been able to raise enough money. “I make enough to buy food, and that’s it,” Vernette says. “I don’t make enough to save or send anything back home to Haiti.”

Workers spend hours under the blazing sun, and their pay is usually based on the weight of the sugar cane they cut. Vernette says he works about six hours per day and gets paid 175 pesos (three dollars) per ton of cane — all of which he cuts manually with just a machete. He is able to cut two or three tons of sugarcane per day, he says. Vernette, however, is young. For the old or sick workers who cannot work as fast, they either make much less or are forced to work longer hours. In the off-season, cane cutters usually take on other plantation tasks, such as planting or weeding.

Vernette lives in a workers’ barrack in Batey Experimental, which consists of a row of rooms with bunk beds. About five or six workers live in each room. Bateyes have some of the worst living conditions in the Dominican Republic, with limited access to electricity, water, and housing.

Nowadays, workers are technically permitted to leave the bateyes, but most are undocumented and are fearful that doing so could make them vulnerable to deportation by immigration officials. Vernette has not left Batey Experimental since he arrived a year ago, only venturing from the batey to the sugarcane fields.

The workers’ barracks in Batey Experimental. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Workers who have higher positions in the sugar companies are provided larger homes. Families not involved in the sugarcane industry have also constructed homes on the company land. There is no running water in the workers’ barracks nor in most of the homes on the batey. Residents must walk to collect water from a single spigot. Children can be seen lugging buckets of water, laughing and tripping over each other on the dusty roads.

Garry Sifrien, thirty-six, arrived in the Dominican Republic twenty-one years ago and has worked as a cane cutter for CEA for almost a decade. He also lives in Batey Experimental. “It’s a very hard life here,” he says, speaking Spanish and taking a seat next to Vernette under the shade:

I make barely enough to purchase food and sometimes not even enough for that. It’s not possible to save any money no matter how hard I try. I can’t even think about starting a family. I can’t even support myself with this job.

Sifrien is also undocumented, which makes finding another job outside the sugarcane fields very difficult. “I’m just stuck here,” Sifrien tells me. His hands are crusted with layers of dried mud and dirt. Sifrien works about twelve hours each day, he says, and earns around nine dollars per day. Most of this money goes to purchasing food. He takes a two-hour break at noon each day. He has developed severe migraines from nearly a decade working under the hot sun.

Garry Sifrien, a Haitian sugarcane cutter who arrived in the Dominican Republic twenty-one years ago. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Sifrien leans forward and raises his voice as a colmado, or local convenience store, located across the road blasts Dominican bachata music from speakers. “They don’t treat us well here,” he explains:

They just pay you whatever they feel like. They don’t pay me what I deserve because they know I don’t have any rights here. What they pay you is arbitrary. I’ll cut five tons, and then they’ll only pay me for three.

After a day of cutting, the workers pile the sugarcane onto an oxcart and transport it to a company supervisor, who is Dominican, for it to be weighed. They receive a slip detailing the amount of cane they cut each day and are paid biweekly. However, workers say they are not permitted to view the scale, making them vulnerable to being shortchanged by their supervisors.

“When they do this to me, I feel so angry. My reaction is to go home and stop working,” Sifrien tells me. However, the one time Sifrien did walk off in anger and refused to work, his supervisors told him that if he did not get back to work, he would be kicked out of his room in the CEA-owned barracks.

“I have no other option but to keep working,” Sifrien adds, shrugging his shoulders:

Every time the supervisors weigh the cane, they steal some of my money. But we have no rights, so whatever they give you, you have to take it. Here, Dominicans are always up, and Haitians are always down. This company has no consideration for me. They don’t treat you like a human. We are just animals to them.

Subsistence Existence Unto Death

For workers in the sugarcane fields, being shortchanged by their supervisors is expected, and most do not protest. Daniel Philip, thirty-eight, has worked for CEA for three years and lives in Batey Olivares in a workers’ barrack, also in San Pedro de Macorís.

Children carrying jugs of water back to their home in Batey AB-4. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“The supervisors do pay you less than what you’re supposed to make,” Philip tells me, leaning on a fence made from sticks near his home. He speaks Spanish with a thick Creole accent. “But most of the time they don’t let you see the exact weight of the sugarcane, so you don’t know if they’re stealing from you or not.”

Philip is also undocumented but has a company-issued identification card, which is only used for the company to keep track of the amount of cane he cuts each day. It cannot be used for anything else in the country.

“None of this is fair,” he says. “But you have to accept it. There’s no one to complain to. Our supervisors are the lawyers and judges of our fate. So, there’s nothing you can do about it.” When I ask him if this life is better than his life back in Cap-Haïtien, the city he is from in Haiti, he pauses for a moment and looks around the batey. “I can’t tell,” he says. “I guess cutting cane here is better than sitting in Haiti and doing nothing. At least here I have some work.”

Philip says he is paying into workers’ compensation insurance. But he has no hope that these payments will ever make it to him. “I know another worker who got sick, and CEA just left him to die,” Philip tells me:

The company didn’t send him to the hospital or support him. So, I assume that’s how they will treat me too. I know none of that money will come back to me. If I get sick or injured, I’m on my own.

Philip only needs to look at the viejos on the bateyes to see his own likely future. Scores of Haitian cane cutters who paid into the Dominican social security system for decades have been denied their pensions, owing to a 2001 change in the social security law that excludes immigrants who do not have proper documentation. The Dominican government has said they will provide pensions to those who can submit proof of their contributions. Thousands have been waiting for years with no response from the government.

Ovilus Laguerre, seventy, worked with CEA for twenty-five years, starting in 1972. He arrived in the Dominican Republic as part of a bilateral agreement between the two governments during the rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. He retired from cane cutting in 1997 owing to old age and injuries he sustained on the job.

Ovilus Laguerre, seventy, worked as a sugarcane cutter for CEA for twenty-five years. (Jaclynn Ashly)

For the three decades that he worked for CEA, he had deductions taken out of his wages to be put into social security. He requested his pension seven years ago and has still not received a dime. According to Marcia Ramos Hernández, coordinating lawyer of the legal department at Asociación Scalabriniana al Servicio de la Movilidad Humana (ASCALA), a local group assisting the sugarcane workers, Laguerre is in the same situation as other viejos who fell victim to company corruption. CEA deducted money for social security from the workers, but these payments were not provided to the Dominican Institute of Social Security, Hernández says.

Laguerre has no family in the Dominican Republic and no valid identification. He worked most of his life on a ficha, a temporary work document provided by the ingenios. But these were discontinued by the Dominican government years ago and are no longer considered valid. His ficha is the only proof he has that he was working in the country and therefore paid into social security. He knows the identification number of his ficha by heart, which he rambles off to me.

“I’m living off charity,” Laguerre tells me, sitting on a chair in Batey AB-4. He experiences a lot of difficulty standing and walking:

My knee is injured, and I have back problems. I don’t even have money to buy food. I’m sick. I can’t work. I can’t provide for myself. I just pray to God. I have no choice but to wait until they give me the little money they promised me, so I can afford to eat until I die.

Another man, sixty-six-year-old Elie Felipe, came to the Dominican Republic in 1971, when he was a teenager. He worked on the sugarcane fields for various companies for decades. He worked for CEA for more than ten years planting various crops on its agricultural fields. Four years ago, battery fluid splashed into his eyes while he was on the job, blinding him in his left eye and partially blinding him in his right eye.

“I can barely see any more, so it’s not possible for me to work,” Felipe tells me. CEA was providing Felipe a biweekly payment of 2,500 Dominican pesos ($44) as compensation for his injury, which he says was enough to cover food and rent. But three months ago, the company abruptly stopped the payments. “They haven’t given me a reason why the money stopped, and I’m by myself and have no one to help me,” he says. Lawyers from ASCALA are assisting Felipe to build a lawsuit against CEA.

Felipe also paid into social security. He requested his pension years ago, which he still has not received. “All they do is tell me to wait,” he says. “So, I wait and wait and wait and nothing happens.” Like scores of viejos who have been denied their pensions, Felipe is now living off charity.

Sixty-six-year-old Elie Felipe came to the Dominican Republic in 1971, when he was a teenager. He worked on the sugarcane fields for decades. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Francisco Castaire, thirty-one, worked with CEA for seven years as a cane cutter; he left the job in 2019. Castaire tells me that when he worked for CEA, the company was often weeks late providing him his payments. “They would give me this slip that showed that I would be getting money soon, and it would allow me to buy things on credit at the colmado,” explains Castaire, who also lives in Batey AB-4.

When my money finally arrived, they would take out the money I had spent on credit. And the balance at the colmado would have a 20 percent interest rate, which would come out of my salary. By the time your money comes to you, there’s nothing left. Working with CEA has not been fair. It’s something criminal.

CEA supervisors commonly lie to the cane cutters about the number of hectares of cane they are cutting in order to hijack portions of their payments. According to Hernández, while cane cutters are usually paid by the weight, sometimes supervisors instead divide fields into hectares and pay each worker based on the amount of area cleared.

Castaire explains how the hectare method of payment allows for even greater wage dispossession:

A lot of times, we don’t even know when we’re being robbed. I usually worked in one area that I was told was ninety-eight hectares. But it turned out that it was actually 102 hectares. That’s five years working in a sugarcane field thinking it was ninety-eight hectares. And I only know that because the new supervisor told me. They are always trying to get us to work more than what we’re paid for. They take advantage of us constantly.

Castaire tells me he also sprayed herbicides for CEA for a year. During this time, the company did not provide him any protective equipment.

Cutting Sugarcane for Sugar Industry Lobbyists

Jelius Felix, sixty-one, came to the Dominican Republic in 1977. Ever since, he has worked the sugarcane fields for various companies. He claims that the company Inversiones Baloso, for whom he worked for over a year, stole from him.

Sugarcane cutters in Batey Experimental. (Jaclyn Ashly)

Inversiones Baloso is a local company, which manages and cultivates sugarcane fields in San Pedro de Macorís and sells the cane to other companies to process. According to Hernández, the company typically sells to Central Romana, a US company that produces most of the Dominican Republic’s sugar and pays some of the lowest wages in the country.

Central Romana is owned by the billionaire Fanjul brothers, who live in Florida. The brothers also own Domino Sugar, the largest sugar-refining company in the world. They are among the sugar industry’s top political donors and lobbyist clients in the United States.

Felix worked various jobs on Inversiones Baloso’s sugarcane fields, including cutting cane, cutting the grass, and collecting cane that fell from vehicles. “I basically do anything my supervisor tells me to do,” he says. In 2019, a supervisor told him to cut an extra section of sugarcane — and that he could keep the cane for himself to sell as payment.

“But then the supervisor took the cane anyway, and they never paid me for the work,” explains Felix, who is also undocumented. “It’s not the first time they’ve robbed me. But this time I went to my supervisor and demanded my payment. And he responded by firing me.” Felix is now trying to sue Inversiones Baloso for 60,000 pesos ($1,058), also with the help of ASCALA.

Felix tells me he has been living in a CEA-owned workers’ barrack in Batey Cambalache with three of his children. Inversiones Baloso rented the housing from CEA years ago. Before this, the workers in the barracks were permitted to have small gardens and animals to supplement their livelihoods. But when Inversiones Baloso took over, the company destroyed the workers’ gardens and forced them to sell their animals.

Felix, who witnessed this, says the company told the workers they no longer had permission to cultivate or own animals. “They are bad people, and they don’t want us to live,” he says:

We have to work for them for survival, so we cannot fight for more money. The poor don’t have the power to battle these companies, so we just have to take it and not complain. But it feels very bad to be treated this way.

Felix’s back has been severely injured from decades bent over and hacking at sugarcane with machetes. For several months, he has been unable to work owing to worsening back pain. He now must rely on his children to take care of him.

“I worked so much cutting this cane, and now I have nothing,” he tells me. His words sum up the fate awaiting all the viejos whose youthful energy will ensure sugar companies’ massive profits. When the viejos grow too old to work, they will be abandoned to poverty. “You work your whole life to end up with absolutely nothing.”

When I ask Felix if he has seen any positive changes to the treatment of workers in the sugarcane fields, where he has lived out decades of his life, he responds: “Here in the sugarcane fields life is always the same. Nothing ever gets better, and nothing ever changes.”