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The harsh labor conditions behind the Dominican Republic sugar ban

Luis Jacque and Nene Benua of Batey Bembe work side by side in the cane fields near Conseulo. Both arrived in the Dominican Republic from Haiti as teenagers, and have cut cane for the past three decades.
Sarah Tilotta for NPR
Luis Jacque and Nene Benua of Batey Bembe work side by side in the cane fields near Conseulo. Both arrived in the Dominican Republic from Haiti as teenagers, and have cut cane for the past three decades.

In the Dominican Republic, workers in the sugarcane fields often work and reside in terrible conditions. Their protective gear may not provide adequate protection and the homes they live in rarely have water or electricity.

A week after the Biden administration banned Dominican sugar giants Central Romana from exporting to the U.S. — over allegations of forced labor — the South Florida Roundup explored the reality faced by workers in the industry.

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The company is the biggest landowner and employer in the Dominican Republic, and their sugar is sold in the U.S. under the Domino brand. The politically connected Fanjul family — a family of sugar barons based in West Palm Beach — own a 35% stake in the company.

Sandy Tolan, a senior producer for news nonprofit Reveal, twice investigated the treatment of sugarcane field workers in the D.R. When he was there in the 90s, he was reporting on human trafficking and child labor in the industry.

“They had children working the fields as young as 14 years old or younger even,” he told SFR host Wilkine Brutus. “We met a 14-year-old who had been kidnaped by the Dominican military and dumped into a cane field run by the State Sugar Council at the time.”

Since then, the conditions have improved in terms of child labor, he said. But Tolan’s 2021 investigation found cane cutters and their families still operating in dire conditions. Workers spoke about inadequate protective gear, low pay and poor medical care among other problems.

“You had people out in the fields with torn overalls that were supposed to be protective coveralls for people spraying the crops … Every single family we spoke to talked about their access to healthcare was extremely limited,” Tolan said.

He also said that nearly every family talked about having a mountain of debt because they are paid so little. So they have to borrow — at an interest rate of 10% a week.

Central Romana have said the latest allegations from U.S. Customs and Border Protection "do not align with reality." But the Fanjul family would not speak about the workers' conditions to Tolan and his team, he said.

“They are famously secretive, they rarely give interviews,” Tolan said. “ The corporation did release a statement to us a while back when we were doing our reporting, praising Central Romana as a highly respected corporate citizen in the Dominican Republic.”

Many of the cane cutters for Central Romana are of Haitian descent or Haitian citizens and do not have legal status in the D.R., he said. This has forced some workers to work well into their 80s, because they cannot collect pensions.

A federal investigation has brought up forced labor allegations against the Central Romana Corporation. The U.S. found various "indicators of forced labor" by the company: abuse of vulnerability, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime.

“Manufacturers like Central Romana, who fail to abide by our laws, will face consequences as we root out these inhumane practices from U.S. supply chains,” said AnnMarie R. Highsmith, executive assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade.

Central Romana Corporation said in a statement posted on Twitter that the allegations of forced labor do not align with reality, and that it has made significant investments to improve working conditions over the past decade.

Listen to the full episodehere

Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.