In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Am I Not Human? Sugar-Coated Slavery

On the 27th day of every month, a group of bloggers unite in an online campaign to share information about human rights abuses across the globe. This month, Cry Haiti focuses on the exploitation of Haitians by the Dominican sugar industry.

Behind a thick leafy curtain of sugar cane, a group of lean, raggedy children with tired eyes and bloated bellies gather the crop cut buy their parents. Working alongside elderly men and pregnant women, they are toiling under armed guard, for the paltry sum of 25c (US) per day. They live in squalid settlements, known as bateyes, without access to a fresh water or electricity. The bateye's are reinforced by barbed wire fences.

Earning just 90c per day, their parents cannot feed them even one decent meal per day. The workers are not permitted to leave the bateyes, and therefore have no option but to spend their wages on overpriced goods in the company store. Adults and children subsist mainly on the nutritionally inadequate sugar cane which they harvest in the fields.

The Children have been trafficked here, with their parents, who were lured by promises of a better life. In reality, they are undertaking forced labour in paradise. The year is 2008, the setting: a matter of miles from the Dominican's sparkling beaches.

Tourists frolicking nearby might have no idea of this carefully hidden travesty, but it is happening with the complicity of Dominican politicians, their military and international businessmen.

Haitian workers are rounded up on trucks and brought into the Dominican illegally, but ready to pay the border fees (sometimes their entire savings). Their Haitian identity papers are confiscated and they do not receive an official work permit in return. Children born in the new country will be denied Dominican citizenship according to international Human Rights group Amnesty International.

As a result, the bateye inhabitants are socially immobile. They are trapped, unable to leave in search a fair wage, or to access health care or education. Although rates of TB and malaria on these plantations are amongst the highest in the world and injury is an occupational hazard, the United Nations Development programme reports that only 7% of the 400 bateyes in the Dominican republic provide a rural clinic for their workers.

US ambassador John Miller, formerly from the Office of Human Trafficking at the US State Department is unequivocal in his condemnation of this system as modern-day “slavery.”

In a 2007 report, the US State Department placed the Dominican Republic on its Tier 2 Watch List for “failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking, particularly in terms of providing increased assistance to victims and undertaking vigorous actions to counter official complicity with trafficking activity.”

The heartbreaking plight and not so sweet existence of the bateye inhabitants was exposed in a recent documentary about the work of a charismatic priest named Christopher Hartley, ironically, an heir to the company which produces Hartley's Jams in the UK.

The Price of Sugar outlines the human cost of the sugar industry. The revolutionary priest's activism on behalf of dispossessed Haitians has borne some fruit: a marginal pay rise, a few cinder block homes, and some piped water. Father Hartley motivated American doctors to travel to the Dominican republic to care for the bateye inhabitants and established a feeding programme for the children on plantations in his parish. All this came at great personal cost, but despite receiving death threats from the sugar barons, the priest remained adamant: "I would be a fraud if I took one step back.” Then, one day in 2006, the Catholic hierarchy ordered him to leave. Father Hartley obeyed.

Need that be the end of the fight? Not so. The price of sugar's website calls people to action:

* Support the work of Infante Sano, a nonprofit dedicated to providing health care to Dominican and Haitian mothers and infants.
*UK residents can support Christan Aid, in its work with bateye inhabitants and oppressed Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
*Americans are urged to lobby their local politicians to ensure that the full civil and labour rights of the cane workers are respected and guaranteed, in exchange for the opportunity to export Dominican sugar to the U.S. market (note: The United States pays up to twice the world price to monopolise exports of Dominican sugar).
*Cane workers in the Caribbean are not the only exploited party. Consider people working on plantations and in factories across the globe, which, produce goods exported to Europe.
*Buy fair trade products (for example sugar, cocoa, fruit, cotton, and nuts.) Cane workers in the Caribbean are not the only exploited party. Consider people working on plantations and in factories across the globe, which, produce goods exported to Europe

Spare a thought and a prayer for the 30,000 Haitians (among them 2000) children who are trafficked to the Dominican Republic every year, and stripped of their human rights and dignity. Spare a thought for the malnourished, the hungry, and the sick who work grueling hours to feed our demand. Imagine them under the beating sun at day, and as evening falls, and rain clouds break, trudging muddied paths, with bare feet. The rain beating down on them.

Imagine them under see through-roofs and flimsy dwellings that hold back neither wind nor rain. This is their sugar-coated, bitter reality.

1 comment:

ACCESS: Allowing Children a Chance at Education, Inc. said...

The Price of Sugar is such a strong, moving documentary that everyone should see. I find your blog very interesting, Susan.

I started my own charity called ACCESS: Allowing Children a Chance at Education, Inc. which helps kids in the Dominican Republic and other countries become educated so they can leave the bateyes and provide for their families.

I invite you to submit something to our new blog, SPEAK UP FOR CHANGE ( or allow me to use one of your posts for it.

Please email me