Haitian Migrant Workers in the Dominican Republic

This essay attempted to analyse the treatment of Haitians migrant workers in the contemporary Dominican Republic economy.Since this essay has been written, there have been some significant negative changes that will be addressed in a later blog or research paper.

In order to analyse this topic, there will be a short description of the historical context of the Haitian-Dominican relation. Afterwards, there will be an analysis of the Dominican Republic’s interest in allowing Haitian migrant workers to enter the country. Then, the basis of discrimination will be studied by looking at different social issues that exist between the two countries in question and the individuals that make up their societies. Finally, the Haitian migrant worker’s treatment in the Dominican Republic will be laid forward.

Although, there should not be too much elaboration on the history of Santo Domingo and Haiti, it is important to understand how the occupation of one island by two colonial powers effected the development of the post-colonial states. This history can be briefly summarized in a few key events. In the 19th century there were several attempted invasions on the part of Haiti in Santo Domingo, one of which was successful for twenty years; then in the 20th century the main issues were related to “border disputes”; and then the “anti-Haitianism and racial discourse”, which had already been prevalent throughout the colonial and post-colonial history of Hispaniola, grew stronger and led to the “definition of Dominican” being synonymous with “not Haitian” (San Miguel, 2005, p.40). Thus, these national cleavages run deep and consequently are still present today. This also plays an important role in the current issue with migrant Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Haitians migrating to the Dominican Republic for work however, it is still very unclear how many of them have made this often dangerous trip. Nonetheless, some have attempted to calculate these numbers. It has therefore been estimated that through 1999 and 2001 between 500,000 to 1 million Haitians migrated to the Dominican Republic (Ferguson, 2003, p.8). The driving force that is enticing so many Haitians to travel to their neighbouring country is quite indisputable – poverty (Ferguson, 2003, p.8). However poverty is not the only element at play. There is also the fact that there are industries in the Dominican Republic that rely almost entirely on Haitian labour and that furthermore, the Dominican Republic’s economy as a whole relies overwhelmingly on the cheap labour provided by these immigrants (Ferguson, 2003, p.9). All of these elements and others will be elaborated furthermore in the next section dealing with the Dominican Republic’s interest in allowing so many Haitians to enter their country.

It is very important to understand why Haitians migrate to the Dominican Republic for work but furthermore why the Dominican businesses continue to hire Haitians despite all the debates surrounding their treatment and their presence as being a threat to Dominicans in search of work. One of the obvious reasons why Haitians go to their poor neighbour for work has to do with its proximity, accessibility and their need to escape poverty (Ferguson, 2003, p.9). But then, why does the Dominican Republic continue to accept and even seek Haitian workers? The answer is quite simple actually.

The Dominican business owners can make more profit with Haitian workers that with Dominican workers. In Martinez’s (1999) analysis of the “migration theory”, he suggests that there is a demand for cheap labour and that the supply lays in Haiti (p.59). Haitians are therefore filling “the gaps left by Dominican workers” (Ferguson, 2003, p.4). Martinez (1999) makes this argument by highlighting the relation between the state and the capitalist interest (p.79). According to him, the state’s attempt to control migration between the Haitian and the Dominican border has maintained a “steady and plentiful supply of harvest labor” on the sugar cane fields (Martinez, 1999, p.79). He also seems to be suggesting that this is the result of “governments taking a more direct hand in mobilizing and directing migrant streams as capitalists labour relations developed and spread further on the Dominican side of the border” and he does not shy away from partially blaming the Haitian government involvement decades ago (Martinez, 1999, p.80). Nonetheless, it is true that at the very core of the migration from West to East on Hispaniola is backed by economic incentives for both Haitians and Dominicans.

While there is truth to this economic argument, we cannot ignore other factors that would lead a poor Haitian to believe that life in the Dominican Republic could possibly be better. Hence, the argument can also be made that Haitians are being manipulated from within their country to cross the border for better jobs and that this is being done without the supervision or regulation of the Haitian government as opposed to what Martinez suggests. Moreover, this tactic is central to many industries means of recruiting seasonal workers. One of those is the sugarcane industry which depends entirely on cheap labour. Indeed, most Haitian migrant workers make the dangerous voyage to the Dominican Republic with the hopes of working in the sugarcane fields and some hope this will help them gain some vertical mobility (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.66, 69). However, Haitian migrant workers seem to meet insurmountable obstacles on their way up in the social ladder.

According to Father Christopher whose work in the Dominican Republic has shed some light on the human rights abuses of sugarcane cutters, Haitians in the hopes of finding employment are also lured by Dominican buscones (recruiters) who themselves cross the Haitian-Dominican border in order to recruit about 30, 000 Haitians every sugarcane harvest time (Haney, 2008). Some academics have even pointed out that there is an informal quota system in which the Dominican authorities pay Haitian authorities for each migrant labour that enters the Dominican Republic to work on the sugarcane field (Howard, 2001, p.34). Thus, while the argument has been made that the Haitian government and military, which should be noted is and was greatly corrupted and inefficient, is involved in sending Haitians to work in the Dominican Republic, there is also a black market of human trafficking involved.

Before pursuing it is important to dismiss the image of all Haitian migrants being innocent individuals being fooled into working in the Dominican Republic for although the numbers are not clear, many of them also pay boukongs (guides/smugglers) to enter the country because they see the Dominican Republic as their last resort and their only hope in finding employment to support their family (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.69). That being made clear, both the Dominicans and the Haitians actively play a role in the Haitian migration towards the Dominican Republic. However the Dominican Republic disproportionately reaps the benefits of having available cheap labour it its disposal at all times.

The economic incentive both for the Dominican businesses and for the poor Haitians seeking work are not enough to explain why their rights are so brutally violated. Evidence seems to be leading to ideas of superiority and inferiority as well. Anthropologists, such as Ferguson (2003) have noted that Haitians working specifically in the sugarcane industry, as well as their children, are often seen as being “uncivilized and inferior” and that this low status of Haitian immigrants is present throughout the Caribbean (p.4). Therefore, this dynamism between the Dominicans and the Haitians can certainly not be ignored. In order to understand how Haitian migrant workers might be viewed as being inferior, it is essential to understand some of the factors that are involved.
The first factor relates to constructed identity and colorism. It is well known that colonization had a major effect on virtually every aspect of the Caribbean. One of those aspects of interest is demographics. When the Spaniards and the French established themselves on Hispaniola and instantaneously implemented slavery, they did not only change the demographics of the people living on the island by killing large numbers of the indigenous Taíno and importing overwhelmingly large numbers of Africans but they also started something that would later become a system of merit based on skin color. In other words, one of the immediate and lasting outcomes of colonialism on Hispaniola, and in other regions of the Caribbean and the world, is institutionalized racism and colorism. In order to demonstrate this we should pay attention to San Miguel’s (2005) Cuban example. According to him, Cuban intellectuals like San José Antonio Saco, have helped proliferate ideas of “blackness” as being “incompatible” with “Cubanness” (San Miguel, 2005, p.37). This kind of discourse also developed in the Dominican Republic.

This also relates to second factor of the national identity of the groups in question. As has been noted above in the historical section, the definition of Dominican became synonymous to not Haitian. Simultaneously, the definition of Dominican, who in the anti-Haitianism discourse views themselves as being lighter than their Haitian neighbour, became not black. Therefore skin color, and issues associated with colorism, is not simply linked to the visible shade of one’s skin because it is also linked to the nationality of the individual. Anthropologists Kimberly Eison Simmons (2008) illustrates this with her accounts of foreigners such as international students being mistakenly identified as being Haitian because of their dark skin tone, the way they dress, their “mannerisms” and their ability at speaking Spanish (p.97). The students are not seen as simply being darker, but they are automatically categorized as being of the ‘antagonist’ nationality, Haitian.

In this sense, the rejection of all that is Haitian or associated with Haitian leads to disproportionate “marginalization” that puts Haitians at the bottom of society “at the margins of constructs of cultural citizenship that give pride of place to ‘lighter-skinned’ citizens” (Martinez, 1997, p.229). Hence, colorism which is linked to both nationality and to culture becomes just one factor that contributes to construction of an identity that leaves deep cleavages between the two neighbouring country, and that creates extreme friction when Haitians migrate to the Dominican Republic.

The third factor deals with Haitians’ legal status which serves as a justification of the animosity that some Dominicans foster towards them. Not only are Haitians generally viewed as being intrinsically different from Dominicans, many of them own no documents to identify themselves and “most” of them are illegal (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.65). This problem often perpetuates because the children of undocumented parents are also undocumented since the Dominican Republic refuses to allow a child of two Haitian parents to have Dominican citizenship (Haney, 2008; Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.65). Exceptions are only made for children whose mother hold Dominican citizenship (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.66, 67). Thus, within the eyes of the law, they do not exist and people who do not exist have no rights. This opens a whole window of opportunity for them to be exploited for cheap labour, for they have no legal institution to turn to defend their rights.

Though this might seem like a stretch in explaining the treatment of Haitians living and working in the Dominican Republic we should take note that this situation is not unique to the Dominican Republic and that understanding it elsewhere can provide some explanation to why and how it occurs on Hispaniola. Social anthropologist Didier Fassin (2001) has been analyzing a similar issue with the treatment of “illegal immigrants” in France (p.3). His findings however are very much applicable to the Haitian-Dominican context. They reveal that the “illegitimate status of undocumented foreigners nurtures the negative perception of immigrants in general” (Fassin, 2001, p.3). Likewise, in the Dominican Republic, “the dominant public image of Haitians is that of illegal invaders who should be deported” (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.73). It has even been noticed by some academics such as David Howard (2001) that the Dominican media also blames Haitians from preventing the modernization of the country since their illegal labour which seems illimitable in industries like the sugar industry allows the country to rely on old technologies by “keeping wages down and sustain a non-mechanized system of farming” (2001, p.34). Hence, there is a very strong link between the many undocumented Haitians and the resentment expressed by Dominicans.

Though somewhat convincing together, color and resentment towards undocumented immigrants cannot possibly constitute as a basis of extreme discrimination towards other human beings. For that reason, the last point that will be made here is one that explains many other inexplicable violations of human rights, hate propaganda. This is not to suggest that everyone in the Dominican Republic hate Haitians, but it is to suggest that those who have the power to undermine their rights and to exploit them, or in other words those who are benefiting from their inferior position in the Dominican society, have been able to create and spread hate propaganda, enough so that every branch of the government seems to be biased enough to virtually never lean in favour for Haitian residing of the Dominican Republic.

For example, in the documentary, The Price of Sugar (2008), the most significant obstacle to Haitian sugarcane workers protecting their rights was were the owners for they, owning a huge percentage of the country’s GNP, are able to influence the government in order to continue treating the workers as “quasi-slaves” (Haney, 2008; Terral, 2007). Furthermore, these elites had the power to control the media which a very important source of information on which people base many of their opinions (Haney, 2008; Terral, 2007).
To recapitulate, this section has made the argument that colorism, constructions of national identity and cultural citizenship along with the illegal status of most Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic and the hate propaganda financed by the leaders of vital Dominican corporations have all contributed to justifying the systematic discrimination that Haitian migrant workers experience.

After discussing the historical context, why the Dominican Republic allow Haitians to migrate to its territory for labour, and the elements that shape the basis of discrimination, their treatment has been contextualized and can now be elaborated. In short, the overall condition of life for Haitian migrant workers can be summarized by a report published by the UNHCR (2008) highlighting some of the major human rights offences with Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic’s sugar plantation and in other industries as including low wages, forced labour, discrimination, poor living conditions, illegal importations and deportations, colorism (which also affects dark Dominicans) and in some instances even child labour. Indeed, Haitians that decide to move to the Dominican Republic for labour are affected in virtually every way imaginable in terms of their rights being violated.

Unfortunately, Haitian children are also a part of the labour migration to the Dominican Republic. In an extensive research, cultural anthropologists Glenn R. Smucker and Gerald F. Murray, uncovered some of the treatments of children in the Dominican Republic. They note that although the Dominican law stipulates that Haitian children have the right to attend school up to eighth grade, they Dominicans often find ways to prevent this from happening (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.67). Children from Bateyes are usually barred from attending school as a whole. There is also a practice in the Dominican Republic that is particularly troublesome. Dominicans foster Haitian children that perform domestic chores in the exchange of an education that could help them “achieve professional and economic success” (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.78). While this is the agreement in theory, Amnesty International’s findings show that these children, mostly girls, are often taken advantage of and are in most cases are not even given any education (Amnesty International USA, 2009). Their treatment has even been categorized as being a “modern form of slavery” as they spend long hours cleaning, cooking, and being at the servitude of their Dominican foster family (Amnesty International USA, 2009).

Adult men and women are also undermined in the Dominican Republic. Smucker and Murray (2004) elaborated on the industries in which they work. Haitian men have the upper hand here, for there is much hard “manual labour” that must be satisfied in the Dominican Republic (p.68). These men are mostly involved in the harvesting of the sugarcane but unlike in the 1990s when Martinez’s conducted his fieldwork in the “bateyes”, Haitians men have also begun working in urban construction, in agriculture and have even more recently begun working as “night watchmen” (Martinez, 1997, p. 232; Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.68). All of these jobs are low paying but none is as low paying as working in the sugar industry.
The Haitian women on the other hand are the most vulnerable and are more involved in the informal economy women as mostly being beggars (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.68). They have also managed to get into the domestic industry cleaning and in some cases even babysitting (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.68). The latter is extremely impressive since there are a lot of stereotypes of Haitians in general with regards to the religious practice of voodoo, and the potential power they can exert with it – witchcraft (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.68). Haitian women are thus a lot more marginalized than the men since they are often unable to even find work.

It was briefly mentioned earlier that the Dominican military played a role in the migration of Haitian workers, so it is not much of a surprise that most of the harsh treatment on these people that have been identified by Smucker and Murray (2004) involves Dominican military. Their research pointed out three ways in which they are implicated in abusing Haitians’ rights.

The first is “shakedown and confiscation” in which Haitians who are caught attempting to illegally enter the country, experience expulsion and their belongings including their money, is taken away from them (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.70). The second is “sudden collective expulsion” in which Haitians and people suspected as being Haitian are collected, have their belongings “confiscated”, have any form of evidence proving they are not Haitian destroyed, are sent to jail, or to Haiti or even to sugar plantations, and all this is done without being able to contact those they leave aside, including their children (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.70). Furthermore, all this is done without them having access to legal advice and without due process. The third is “constant stopping at roadside military checkpoints in which dark-skinned people in general are stopped to verify that they are not illegal Haitian immigrants (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.70). All the phenotypic profiling also affects Domincans that have darker skin.

Although the military plays a very important role, being that facilitate the migration flows and abuse Haitians rights, some of the most disturbing stories come from the actions of Dominican civilians. The offences include Dominicans beating Haitians living in the country, setting them on fire and killing them (The Fund for Peace, 2006). There other gruesome accounts such as amputations with machetes by Dominicans. However, because there are so many other factors to take into consideration in order to properly and justly assess these violations, such as economic disparities, corruption in the law enforcement agencies and widespread poverty for instance that lead to increase violence in the Dominican Republic, we should pursue and look at an issue that more specifically affects Haitian migrant workers.

Hence, the final topic for this section is the batey. Since it has been referred to frequently thus far, this shall be a brief account of the lives of Haitians whether they are migrant workers or second or third generation Haitians living in the Dominican Republic or more specifically in this designated area.
One of the main problems with bateyes is how they serve as a means to physically and socially “segregate” Haitians to Dominicans (Howard, 2001, p.37). In these “enclaves”, cane cutters make on average 40 pesos a day, which is equivalent to approximately 40$ a day (Howard, 2001, p.37; Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.96). This is in part due to the extremely low wages but also to the fact that there is not a strict account of how many canes each worker cuts per day and also to the fact that they are “cheated in their pays” (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.96). In addition to this issue, cane cutters and their “overseers” long in more hours than the official eight-hour work day schedule (Wilhelms, 1994, p.55). Also, guards are very abusive towards to workers. If someone is ill and does not show up to work, they risk being clubbed or beaten in other ways (Wilhelms, 1994, p.71-72).

Then there are also the living conditions to take into consideration. Within these bateyes houses are over-crowed, and have barbwire on the ceilings to prevent workers from escaping at night; there is no running water and no electricity; injured or ill workers receive no medical attention; and there are no “cooking facilities” (Haney, 2008; Terral, 2007; Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.97; Wilhelms, 1994, p.53-65). Sometimes the workers attempt to sustain themselves by being innovating. For example, they might want to make a little garden for some basic foods so all their earnings do not go to the company-owned stores in the bateyes, but these efforts would be discouraged and the garden, destroyed by the sugar compay (Wilhelms, 1994, p.62). Furthermore, Haitian women and girls are also sexually exploited by both batey men and Dominican men seeking their sexual services (Smucker and Murray, 2004, p.97). It is thus, not surprising that under such circumstances that sugar cane workers living in the batey suffer from malnutrition and disease (Wilhelms, 1994, p.64). Therefore, the batey easily illustrates the other elements discussed above regarding economic incentives and the construction of identity.
To summarize, the treatment of Haitian migrant workers have affected children by using them for household labour and by sexually exploiting them. Women too are sexually exploited and are less integrated in the Dominican formal economy thus making them more vulnerable. The military has been greatly used to profile, expulse and confiscate the belongings of the already impoverished Haitian migrants. Civilians also play a role in abusing Haitians in very violent ways. Finally, the bateyes have internalized in many ways the resentment that exist towards Haitian workers and thus represents their low social status.

Overall, this short essay has attempted demonstrated how the treatment of Haitian migrant workers are effected by historical events, economic incentives and construction of identity. Important industries in the Dominican Republic have given themselves the authority to take advantage of the low social status of Haitians by exploiting their labour continuously with the help of the corrupt military while civil society’s resentment towards them have worsen and perpetuated the situation. Everyone who represents this West to East migration on Hispaniola, women, girls, boys and men are all at risk of discrimination, marginalization and physical violence. Thought these issues are being covered by international community more than before, there is still a lack of academic work in anthropology addressing the issue. Furthermore, these serious offences rarely meet the ears of regular citizens outside of the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean. Thus more work needs to be put forward at revealing and defending human rights in general, and especially in the Dominican Republic were so many Haitians travel in hopes of a better life.

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San Miguel, Pedro L. (2005). History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola. (J. Ramirez, trans.). United States: The University of North Carolina Press. (Original work published 1997).
Simmons, Kimberly Eison. (2008). “Navigating the Racial Terrain: Blackness and Mixedness in the United States and the Dominican Republic”. Transforming Anthropology. Volume. 16, Number 2, pp. 95–111. Available at: <http://0-onlinelibrary.wiley.com.mercury.concordia.ca/doi/10.1111/j.1548-7466.2008.00019.x/references&gt;.
Smucker, R. Glenn and Gerald F. Murray. (2004).The Trafficking of Children: a Study of Trafficking in Haitian Children. Port-au-Prince, Haïti: USAID Haiti Mission. Available at : <http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADF061.pdf&gt;.
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Wilhelms, Saskia K. S. (1994). Haitian and Dominican Sugarcane Workers in Dominican Bateyes: Paterns and Effects of Prejudice, Stereotypes and Discrimination. Münster: Interethnische Beziehungen & Kulturwandel.

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