‘If you make demands, they fire you’

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Today the United Nations released Haiti’s first census in 24 years. And the new numbers underscore that country’s desperate economic situation. The rate of HIV/AIDS is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Half of the population is under the age of 20. Unemployment is a staggering 33 percent. Some Haitians do find work across the border. In the busy sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is the main source of imported sugar to the United States. But Reed Lindsay reports workers aren’t seeing any of the profit.

[Sound: Cutting cane]

REED LINDSAY: Jose Lubin slices his machete through the burnt sugar cane, breaks off the unwanted leafy upperhalf and throws the cane stalks in a pile. He takes a step forward, and swings at the next stand of cane with his machete.

Lubin began working as a cane cutter at the age of 13. Now, he is 57 years old and still works from dawn to dusk. His hands and weathered clothes are stained black with soot from the burnt cane. Lubin is paid 45 pesos, the equivalent of $1.40, for every ton of sugar cane he cuts.

JOSE LUBIN: If you cut two tons, that’s 90 pesos. Right there, that’s not even one ton. That’s not even 45 pesos. You have to make three piles to earn 45 pesos. But I don’t even have that much yet.

In 1999, Dominican president Leonel Fernandez privatized the state-owned sugar industry, including the mill here in the province of Barahona, near the southwest border with Haiti. At the time, the mill was losing money and was rife with employees who collected a paycheck but never went to work. Proponents of the privatization say it was the only way to save the mill from being shut down.

The government granted a 30-year lease to a private company owned by a wealthy Guatemalan family to produce sugar on more than 36,000 acres of land. The mill stayed open, but Lubin says life hasn’t gotten any better for him.

LUBIN: The work is always the same. This company has not increased prices for anyone. People have made complaints, but when they do, the company threatens to use a machine to harvest instead. They say those who want to cut can cut, and those who don’t can leave. This company comes at us hard.

Jose Moreno has worked on the plantation since he was 9 years old. Now, he is a supervisor, and walks up and down the stalks keeping an eye on the 60 cutters in his crew.

JOSE MORENO: The best thing Leonel did was privatize this because when he privatized there was nothing here. There was no cane, nothing. The company came to rehabilitate this. That’s why now there are a certain number of us making a living today. It may not be much, but it’s something.

But this is as much credit as Moreno is willing to give his employer.

MORENO: We live in a jungle here. We don’t have anyone who watches over us, who stands up for us. That’s why the company is under no obligation to pay us more. If you make demands, they fire you.

Many of the sugar cane cutters are illegal Haitian immigrants trying to escape their country’s crushing poverty. Jose Antonio Rodriguez is a Spanish missionary who lives on the plantation. Rodriguez and other human rights observers accuse the company of taking advantage of the immigrants’ fear of deporation.

JOSE ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ: From the people’s perspective, since the Barahona mill was privatized, the working conditions have worsened. They demand longer work hours for less money. And the salaries have been frozen for six years when the cost of living has risen a lot.

Company representatives and government officials insist that pay and labor conditions have actually improved since the privatization. Washington Gonzalez oversees labor issues for the Dominican government.

WASHINGTON GONZALEZ: The private businessmen themselves have made improvements in labor conditions. They’ve understood and they’re going to have to continue to understand that they’re going to have better production if they have better working conditions.

But Gonzalez concedes that the Consorcio and other sugar mills continue to break the law. He cites unsanitary and unsafe conditions, excessive work hours and child labor.

[Sound: Cargo train passing]

A cargo train rumbles past the cane fields loaded with freshly cut stalks. The Consorcio hopes to double production in the coming years. But it will be difficult to reach this goal without winning over the poor Haitians and Dominicans who live and work in the plantation. A quarter of last year’s harvest was lost to fires thought to have been set by disgruntled employees.

In Barahona, I’m Reed Lindsay for Marketplace.

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