U.S. bans Dominican sugar company over forced labor
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Whether or not you know the company Central Romana, you've probably used its product. It's one of the world's biggest producers of sugar, based in the Dominican Republic, and the U.S. is its biggest customer. Central Romana's product is used by major brands like Hershey chocolates and Domino Sugar. For decades, the company has been accused of using forced labor. And last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced an import ban, pointing to some of the abuses that reporter Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel documented recently in an investigation for Reveal, Mother Jones and The Intercept. Sandy and Euclides, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
SANDY TOLAN: Thank you, Ari.
EUCLIDES CORDERO NUEL: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: You first visited these plantations 30 years ago, Sandy, when workers from Haiti were literally detained and forced to work in the sugar fields. That is no longer the case. So help us understand when the U.S. government says Central Romana is still using forced labor, what does that mean today?
TOLAN: Well, it's not the situation that it was 30 years ago that you don't see people locked in and protected by guys holding shotguns in fenced-in areas. You don't see children in the fields like you did when I was there 30 years ago. But we saw terrible conditions in the so-called bateyes, or work camps, ramshackle housing, houses with no electricity or running water, people with inadequate protective gear, very poor medical care, low pay - when we were there, as low as $4 a day - chronic debt of up to 500% annually. So the workers there are trapped in poverty. The families are hungry. You have people from church groups that are coming and offering little bags of food because the workers and their families are so hungry. Central Romana says they provide good wages and take care of the families. But if that were the case, you wouldn't see people crowding around for tiny bags of beans and cooking oil and rice.
SHAPIRO: Euclides, you come to this with expertise as a journalist and also firsthand experience. You were raised in a batey. Can you just tell us what life is like there?
NUEL: Yeah. Sandy described very well what has happened in the batey. And I was born in the batey in '89, and I can tell you that not many changes have happened in improving the lives of the people. These are very difficult situations. I have the experience of the guy - he's a Haitian we met at the bateyes (ph). He has two kids, and now one of the kids has an infection. I asked him, why you don't all go to the hospital with your kid? And he said, because I don't have money. You can imagine for a guy who's working 16 hours a day, doesn't have money to pay for that visit to the hospital.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Sandy, in all the conversations you had with people living there, is there somebody you can describe for us whose memory stays with you?
TOLAN: Yeah, for sure. Actually, there are quite a few. But there was one fellow that Euclides and I met named Raoul, who was a fumigator who fell sick, along with many others who - dozens of others who reported falling sick due to poor safety standards from fumigating the crops with chemicals. He had tuberculosis, and he was HIV positive. He fell ill and couldn't work, didn't get - according to him, didn't get any compensation from Central Romana. We met him in probably 2020. When we went back a year later to look for him, he had died. He was buried in an unmarked grave with a wooden stick just sticking out. And in a way, he represents a lot of the forgotten and disposed people, the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands over the years who've worked to cut cane.
SHAPIRO: Euclides, when you visit these bateyes and you see the difficult conditions people are living in, do you think that could have been me if my life had gone differently?
NUEL: Exactly. I remember it was a very hard decision for me to come out of the bateyes. And when I was able to make that decision, my family was very worried about it because I had no Dominican ID. But in 2012, I get access to my documents. So I go to the university to study, to become a journalist.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Now, the company, Central Romana, says it is very disappointed by the U.S. government's decision. It says it has invested in improving conditions for workers. The owners of this company are extremely influential in U.S. politics. Sandy, tell us about the two brothers who have owned Central Romana since the 1980s.
TOLAN: Yes, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul bought Central Romana. They led a group of investors in 1984. They're the biggest landowner in the Dominican Republic, said to be the biggest employer in the Dominican Republic and extremely influential both in the Dominican Republic and Washington. The former president of Central Romana was also the vice president of the Dominican Republic, its foreign minister, its ambassador to the U.S. And here, they have donated tens of millions of dollars over the years to U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle. There's also a return on investment. One agricultural economist told me he calculates that the Fanjul-owned companies and the family received $150 million annually from U.S. price supports of about $0.10 a pound over the world market price.
SHAPIRO: Euclides, can you give us a sense of how much of an impact this one company has on life in the Dominican Republic and what it means from the perspective of the D.R. that suddenly the doors is shut to U.S. imports?
NUEL: Yeah. You know, I heard yesterday (inaudible) on economy, he said the situation from Central Romana is going to create 30,000 of unemployment. And in the same way the government have announced that they are going to support Central Romana to see how they can have negotiations with the U.S.
TOLAN: And if I can add to that.
TOLAN: The estimates that maybe 30,000 people in the sugarcane industry in the D.R. could be put out of work, and some people think that's a bluff and it's an exaggeration and trying to whip up fear. I don't know for sure which it is, but it's interesting to note that Central Romana actually issued two statements, one very conciliatory in English, saying we want to continuously evolve our work environment, work collaboratively with the U.S. government to resolve this matter. But they said nothing like that in their statement in Spanish, which was for a more domestic audience, people who are very well aware of two U.S. invasions in the 20th century of their nation. So they issued a more nationalistic statement knowing how that could affect the citizens. And they said, you know, we hold our heads high because we know that for more than a century, we have acted correctly.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel - their investigative report documented labor abuses by the Dominican sugar company Central Romana. Thank you both.
TOLAN: Thank you, Ari.
NUEL: Thank you for your invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.