On 20th May the Ambassador was hosted to a half-day visit to the Grupo Vicini’s cane fields, several “bateys” and the sugar mill at San Pedro de Macoris by Dr Fernando Ferran, Director for Institutional Relations for the company.
1. The following are extracts from his report:
“The treatment of Haitian immigrant labour by “Big Sugar” in the Dominican Republic has long been a controversial matter. Over the years, some NGOs and religious leaders have alleged that the treatment of workers is close to a modern day version of slavery. Problems have allegedly included use of child labour, not allowing workers to leave the plantation, not paying them in currency but only in vouchers which are only accepted in expensive company shops, underpaying them in comparison with the quantity of cane they have cut, etc. Life on the bateys was portrayed in the early 2000s by the work of Father Christopher Hartley, a Catholic priest who tackled the sugar barons head on, including by mobilising the cane cutters to take strike action and generally highlighting their poor standard of living in a 2004 film called “The Price of Sugar”. Grupo Vicini has taken legal action against the film makers in the US.
Against this background I was very pleased to accept the kind invitation of Dr Ferran of the Grupo Vicini who took me to visit the bateys and cane fields on 20th May.
This was a chance to see the situation with my own eyes.
The system of bringing Haitian immigrant labour has changed radically in the last 25 years. Until 1986, the labour was brought under a contract between the two Governments. DR paid the Government of Haiti for the cane cutters they needed each season and returned them across the border afterwards. This ended with the fall of President Duvalier in Haiti in 1986. Nowadays the workers make their own way to the Dominican cane fields looking for work. They are mainly undocumented and poor. Often they bring their families and, increasingly, they do not return between seasons but rather settle permanently in the bateys.
The Grupo Vicini is trying to upgrade life for its batey resident workforce. I was shown the “old” and the “new”. The old batey – which is still the kind in which the majority of labourers live – was a desperately poor place. Tiny, damp, crumbling concrete single room houses with a curtain separating the 6-8 square metre of space into two to provide basic privacy. No latrines. No running water. No facilities for recreation. Outside cooking on charcoal fires. The new batey (Nuevo Cayacoa) was a complete contrast: a decent, well laid out village, good paved roads, rows of larger houses each with several rooms, clean streets, some houses with small gardens. Water at Nuevo Cayacoa is delivered to houses’ individual tanks each day. The well-appointed two-story school was alive with children taking lessons in decent class-rooms with bright young teachers. The school is run by Fe y Alegria, the Jesuit organisation. Children were in neat, clean uniforms. The batey also has well maintained basketball and soccer pitches, a large catholic church and a health clinic. The overall impression was incomparable with anything I have seen in the Haitian countryside.
Dr Ferran said that the Vicini senior management was determined to carry on modernising its bateys along the lines of Nuevo Cayacoa and to group the communities together into larger centres where services can be provided to a better standard efficiently. The plan was to move all workers and their families to such bateys.
Amongst the benefits the workers now enjoy on the Vicini land are healthcare insurance, education, free housing and electricity, some food, free water. Average salaries for workers are around 6,000 pesos per month (120 euros). If a child is seen at work, everyone involved loses the day’s pay (e.g the parent and foreman/supervisor). One worker, Mr Jean Pie, told me that he was happy with his treatment. He showed me his neat, clean house and explained how he was paid, strictly according to the amount of cane he personally cut.
After visiting the bateys in the cane field we visited the Central Batey at San Pedro, next to the Ingenio (sugar mill). There we saw the school which has been jointly funded by the state and the Grupo Vicini. It was as good as any state school I have seen in this country. The school director told me that all Vicini batey children have access to schooling.
My conclusions from the day are:
- There are still many of the old style bateys, both on Vicini land and on the state plantations. Life there is undoubtedly very, very tough and lived in squalid conditions. But arguably it is better than the life lived by the unemployed in the slums of Port au Prince or the poor villages in the Haitian (or Dominican) countryside from where these workers come.
- Grupo Vicini is undeniably making a considerable investment to improve the living conditions of its workers. The company is achieving very tangible results which sometimes tend to be overlooked or ignored by many critics whose opinions were perhaps formed in earlier eras. Pay continues to be very low for such hard and at times dangerous work. The level of pay does not allow the workers much prospect of improving themselves or enjoying any social mobility, but the in-kind benefits enjoyed by workers and their families are very considerable by Dominican standards (and even more by Haitian standards).
- With provision of healthcare, protection of children against exploitation, schooling and shelter/food/water, employed batey residents have a relatively secure quality of life compared with their fellow countrymen who do not have a job or any of the in-kind benefits that a modern batey offers.
- Most importantly, the education that batey children receive – if pursued to its conclusion – will give them life opportunities that their parents’ generation could not hope to receive. The Grupo Vicini’s commitment to education for their staff and dependents is impressive; 29 facilities in which 3000 children are taught from pre-school through to school leaving certificate age.
- Seen in the context of Haitian/Dominican rural poverty, the bateys are increasingly not the problem. There is evidence that the private companies and the state are working at improving the lot of the batey dwellers.
- For the undocumented Dominicans of Haitian descent, the much bigger problem is their inability to gain regular citizenship of the DR, often the only country they have ever known. In this sense they are prisoners of the economic and social history of this island. The resolution of this problem is not the responsibility of the private sector but rather the governments of the two countries that share the island. It is a very sensitive and difficult problem, the solution to which requires great vision, commitment, compassion and political sensitivity on the part of the two governments concerned and a high level of understanding on the part of the international community and NGO sector.
I am grateful to Dr Ferran, and to the Grupo Vicini as a whole, for allowing me an insight into this important aspect of Dominican life. I appreciate the complete openness and transparency with which I was received. I feel that nothing was hidden. As we say in English, this was a ”warts and all” tour which showed me where the company has come from and where it is going in terms of its treatment of its work-force and their families.”
Steven Fisher, HM Ambassador
HM Governor’s Office, Montserrat
ARTICLE: HM Governor’s Office