Working bitter to make sweet

Scott Jagow Oct 19, 2007


Scott Jagow: The sugar you put in your coffee or on your grapefruit. Do you know where it comes from? It might come from sugar-cane fields in the Dominican Republic, fields worked by Haitian immigrants.

A new documentary called “The Price of Sugar” looks at the awful conditions these people live in. Joining us is the film maker, Bill Haney. Bill, what do you see when you go down to the Dominican Republic?

Bill Haney: I saw people who were desperately poor, laboring under conditions that felt sub-human. And, you know, when I read journalists who characterized this as “modern-day slavery,” I certainly saw nothing to disagree with — children running naked in the streets, very limited food supply, malnutrition, high AIDs rate, very troubling things. Existing five or six miles from giant resorts swollen with American tourists, sunning themselves on the beach.

Jagow: How can this be going on and the U.S. not be doing anything about it?

Haney: Well, what’s extraordinary is not only that the U.S. government hasn’t been able to do anything about it, but that U.S. consumers subsidize it. The United States pays above world price for Dominican sugar — up to two times the world price. So we’re actually subsidizing the sugar plantations that have these conditions.

Jagow: Why are we paying so much for sugar?

Haney: You might see a correlation between the fact that the sugar industry gives more money to politicians in Washington on a dollar-trade basis than any other agricultural business — 400 percent of the average. So you might correlate the notion that it’s extraordinarily generous in Washington, to the fact that it gets extraordinarily big subsidies.

Jagow: So what would it take to impose some kind of solution here, just with a market solution? Just with the price?

Haney: I think a market solution is the best solution. And that what aught to happen is the United States aught to stop subsidizing foreign sugar-growers — or at the very least, subsidize them only if they meet some basic human rights practices. I mean, if we’re gonna pay twice the world price, we have a right to ask for some things in return. And one of the things seems to me that people treat their laborers with, you know, giving them some basic human dignity.

Jagow: When you go to the vending machine and you put a dollar in and you get a Snickers bar out — or whatever it is that you’re eating with sugar in it — you don’t know where the sugar comes from. So how can an American consumer do anything about this and take a stand?

Haney: Partially, you can be more careful where you get sugar. There’s Hawaiian sugar, where there’s good fair-trade practices. There’s fair-trade sugar, there’s honey, there’s sugar substitutes. You can also write to your congressman and say that you care about this, and that if sugar’s gonna be imported and subsidized by U.S. consumers, basic human rights should be practiced by the people who grow it.

Jagow: Bill Haney — his film is called “The Price of Sugar.” Thanks for joining us.

Haney: Thanks for having me.

Jagow: The documentary opens today in Los Angeles. A company that runs a sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic has sued Haney for slander, saying his film is misleading. Congress might take a look at this issue. In Los Angeles, I’m Scott Jagow. Thanks for listening, and have a great weekend.

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