SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) — A Catholic priest who long fought for the rights of Haitians working in Dominican sugar fields said he applauds a new report on the situation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Labor Department has rebuked the Dominican Republic and the country’s sugar industry for violating labor laws and subjecting a largely Haitian workforce to unacceptable conditions.
The Sept. 27 report strongly supported claims long made by Father Christopher Hartley, who advocated for better working conditions for Haitian immigrants until leaving the Caribbean country in 2006.
Labor Department researchers said they found evidence that sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic work longer than the legal maximum number of hours, are underpaid, live in squalor and are forced to work on some occasions, among other things. The report faulted the Dominican government for shoddy inspections and not doing enough to address the situation that has long existed in the country.
The Labor Department investigated the situation under a provision of the trade agreement, CAFTA-DR, signed by the U.S., Dominican Republic and Central American nations.
Father Hartley, who filed the labor complaint under the trade pact in December 2011, said he was “brought to tears” by the findings.
“It was just a very happy day, not just for me but, more importantly, for the workers who were courageous enough to come forward,” Hartley told Catholic News Service Sept. 29 via satellite phone from his mission in rural Ethiopia.
Haitians come by the thousands to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane, a brutal job that involves rising before dawn to cut by machete and stack sugar cane before it goes on to processing mills and eventually makes its way to U.S breakfast tables.
From 1997 to 2006, Father Hartley worked in a parish outside of San Pedro de Macoris, a bustling small city surrounded by sugar fields an hour and a half east of the capital, Santo Domingo.
In two visits to the Dominican Republic — which included interviews with dozens of workers and visits to the villages where they live — Labor Department researchers found a system stacked against workers, who had little means of recourse.
What’s more, the report said, the Dominican government’s inspections of the sugar industry were woefully inadequate.
The Labor Department’s “review has thus raised questions and concerns regarding the … enforcement of its labor laws in the sugar sector, in particular though worksite inspections.”
For example, the Labor Department found that Dominican inspectors failed to interview cane cutters at times or had interviewed Creole-speaking immigrants in Spanish.
The Labor Department also said it had received information about children working in the sugar fields.
An association that represents Dominican sugar companies said it was studying the report and planned to respond. But in brief remarks to Dominican press, the association dismissed the Labor Department findings as the claims of a man who has not lived in the country for years.
Father Hartley said attacking his character fails to address the situation.
“This is no longer me just saying this, this is the U.S. Department of Labor,” he said. “How much more evidence does one need?”
Father Hartley gained prominence after several years of speaking out for Haitian cane cutters. He regularly complained about what he called human rights abuses, including abhorrent working and living conditions and evidence that workers had been smuggled into the country.
He also regularly hosted journalists and filmmakers, including the makers of the documentary, “The Price of Sugar,” a particularly controversial film narrated by Paul Newman.
Father Hartley left the Dominican Republic in 2006. He has said he was forced out, but the local bishop has said it was not connected to his work with sugar cane cutters. Calls placed to that bishop’s office were not returned.
While working from abroad, Father Hartley brought the complaint against the Dominican Republic under the trade agreement, which includes a provision that member countries must uphold international labor codes and meet their own labor laws.
Despite being delayed by more than a year, the report represents a thorough investigation of the situation on the ground, Father Hartley said.
“They went beyond the claims I made and came to their own conclusions,” he said.
The Labor Department said it would follow up with investigations and reports after six months and a year.