Tuesday, November 02, 2021

21st Century Slavery Looks A Lot Like 19th Century Slavery

motherjones |  When I first came to the Dominican Republic 30 years ago evidence of forced labor in the sugar harvest was glaringly obvious: Men with shotguns guarded locked gates to trap workers in the cane fields. But the International Labor Organization’s indicators of forced labor include more subtle abuses like the hazardous working conditions, low pay, and other issues cane workers regularly describe today.

“We’re talking about coercive forces that are psychological, coercive forces that are driven by debt,” said Duncan Jepson, managing director of the international anti-trafficking group Liberty Shared. “And that’s slightly more subtle than methods of violence.”

One Sunday morning, Euclides and I went to a batey for an Evangelical church service, under a patchwork of red and blue tarps affixed to wooden poles. We’d been invited by a couple I’ll call Efrain and Noni. Noni paced back and forth before the congregation, microphone in her hand, leaning back, giving it everything.

In contrast to his wife, Efrain sat quietly in a folding chair. He’s a “mixer,” part of a team of fumigators who sometimes use sticks ripped from trees to stir chemicals in open 55-gallon drums. Despite Central Romana’s promises to provide health care to workers, Efrain told us he has to pay for much of it himself, which has pushed him into spiraling debt. Together with expenses caused by his brother’s thrombosis, he now owes 30,000 pesos—about $600, or nearly three months’ pay. The lender charges 10 percent per week, Efrain explains: “If you borrow 1,000 pesos, you have to give this person 100 pesos per week in interest.” Yearly, that adds up to 520 percent interest.

More than two dozen cane workers told us their salaries are so low that they’ve turned to money lenders in nearby towns. A municipal firefighter who has a side business making loans to cane workers explained that while Central Romana doesn’t operate the loan shark rings, the company’s low wages leave workers desperate and willing to pay exorbitant rates. One of the ILO’s elements of forced labor is “fraudulent debt from which workers cannot escape.”

It’s a brutal cycle, Efrain tells us. The canecutters are in debt until they die.

Sugar is not the only thing that’s made the Fanjuls so rich. Their profits are sweetened thanks to the politics of the United States. Not only does Central Romana benefit from a tariff program under which the Dominican Republic gets a greater share than any other sugar-exporting nation—with the company filling nearly two-thirds of that quota—but it also profits from a congressionally authorized federal price-support program that inflates the value of each pound by about 10 cents. Vincent Smith, an agricultural economist and critic of the program, estimates the Fanjul family is “getting at least $150 million a year” in net benefits from the program, with another $25 million going to Central Romana’s imports. “That’s a very substantial concentration of benefits on a very small number of folks,” Smith says.

Some of that money goes back to seed the American political system. Over the last 20 years, Big Sugar has spent more than $220 million on campaign contributions and lobbying to sustain the price-supports and oppose stricter dietary guidelines, with 40 percent of that, according to OpenSecrets, coming from Fanjul-affiliated companies and lobbying groups. Smith, citing Federal Election Commission data, points out that the Fanjul empire and allied sugar organizations spend 10 million every year on lobbying and campaign contributions. “They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” says Sheila Krumholz, OpenSecrets’ executive director. “It’s a very good investment.”



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