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Abuses In The Dominican Republic Sugar Industry
September 29, 2022

Earlier this summer, a Congressional delegation followed up on a history of allegations about forced labor, including child labor, in the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic and created a joint working group with representatives from the Dominican Republic’s government to tackle the problem. This story might seem only tangentially related to our focus, but hang tight; we think this is still going to interest you. 

What You Need to Know About the Dominican Republic Sugar Industry

The Dominican Republic is one of the top exporters of sugar consumed in America, and Central Romana, the largest sugar producer (and landowner) in the country, is one of three main private companies responsible for sugar produced for export. They supply about 63% of the DR’s quota, and their parent company, Fanjul Corporation, is a vast sugar and real estate conglomerate, selling sugar under brand names such as Domino, Florida Crystals, C&H Sugar, Tate & Lyle, and others. We’ll turn back to the Fanjul brothers in a minute. 

In the meantime….

For decades, there have been allegations of serious abuses–including child labor and forced labor–in the living and labor conditions of workers and their families. As documented by the Corporate Accountability Lab (among others), “Central Romana’s sugarcane workers in the Dominican Republic have labored under dangerous conditions, often working thirteen hour days in the hot sun [as in, “in the middle of the Dominican summer, when the heat index can reach 110 degrees” (source: Washington Post)], cutting sugarcane with machetes, and earning poverty wages.” A majority of the workers are of Haitian descent, many of whom lack basic legal protections, or are undocumented and thus very vulnerable. Some are even stateless. As cited in the Washington Post, “workers for Central Romana say they earn around $125 a month cutting sugar cane, well below the country’s average monthly salary of $777.” The work is dangerous, and access to healthcare is very limited. These exploited workers live in company-provided settlements called bateyes, in substandard conditions; for example, without electricity, in a country with near-universal access to electricity. 

Meanwhile, Central Romana, which uses armed guards to assert its power and intimidate, has been accused of forcefully evicting families from their homes–destroying the makeshift shacks in the middle of the night on a public holiday, sometimes even with children still inside them–in order to seize the land for sugar cultivation. 

The Families Tried to Seek Redress….

But the public prosecutor wouldn’t take the case. The victims then tried to find local lawyers to file a civil suit–again, to no avail. The families persisted, which led them to file a case in a district court in Florida, where Central Romana and the Fanjul Corporation have a business presence. There is also a petition filed with Customs and Border Protection which prohibits the import of goods produced with forced labor. 

This tactic, incidentally–shifting from criminal to civil prosecutions, or even attempting to pursue cases in other jurisdictions (especially involving larger corporations with presences in other jurisdictions)–is one that is sometimes the best possible strategy for pursuing rights violation cases and corporate accountability.

It has also been successfully done before, in this very same industry. In 2006, Cambodian sugar companies that produced for American Sugar Refining and other Fanjul organizations violently expelled 500 families from their homes in an illegal land grab. According to the Corporate Accountability Lab, the Cambodian families filed a claim with the OECD, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, and Bonsucro, a certification scheme for socially-responsible sugar production. “This multifaceted advocacy strategy led to international recognition of the families’ rights and condemnation of the companies’ actions. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand released a report stating that the sugar companies’ conduct violated the victims’ fundamental human rights of self-determination. Bonsucro suspended the companies’ membership, which ultimately led them to resign from the certification scheme. Finally, the OECD made a final statement outlining that the complaint had substantiated claims and recommending that American Sugar Refining address these issues with the communities.” 

So this Fanjul Corporation has a history. Well, hold tight, there’s more…

Fanjul Corporations’ Power

The Fanjul Corporation is owned by the Fanjul brothers–four Cuban-born brothers, Alfonso (or “Alfy”), Jose (also known as “Pepe”), Alexander, and Andres. Because of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, the family moved to Florida and purchased land and sugar mills around Lake Okeechobee and Palm Beach County. Fanjul Corporation is now the third largest private company in Florida, with 2,000 jobs.

The Fanjul brothers donate exorbitant sums of money in political contributions to both parties, with Alfy donating heavily to Democrat candidates and causes and Pepe to Republican ones. Alfy co-chaired Bill Clinton’s campaign run in Florida in ’92. Pepe was on Bob Dole’s finance committee in ’96 and donates heavily to Marco Rubio

What does this influence buy them? Reportedly, Clinton was interrupted in his conversation in the Oval Office where he was ending his relationship with Monica Lewinsky–the call was from the Fanjuls, who were enraged by Al Gore’s proposed “polluters tax” which would have held them accountable for their role in polluting the Everglades. The bill proposing this tax was dropped. Rubio, for his part, is a staunch supporter of sugar subsidies. And the corporation takes advantage of a tax haven in South Dakota, which US & EU lawmakers are working to investigate and track.

Meanwhile, American taxpayers and consumers foot the bill, with the sugar program limiting the sugar on the market to keep prices high. According to the National Review, in a combination of loans and tariffs that protect American sugar companies, American consumers “pay about twice as much as the rest of the world for the sugar they eat.”

Is there accountability? In the case of the evicted families, Central Romana denies any wrongdoing. In a Vanity Fair interview, when Alfy Fanjul was asked if he believes he has any moral obligation to thousands of cutters who worked in his fields and whether he would perhaps set up an educational fund for their children, he responded, “Why would I do that?” He adds that they give a lot of money to charity.

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