Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Thoughts on recent report on Haitian migrant workers on Dominican sugarecane plantations: Is the time right for a Social Security Agreement between Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

The U.S. Department of Labor's recent report on working conditions for Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican sugar industry highlights a shift in the way U.S. DOL's Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) reviews petitions submitted under the labor chapters of U.S. free trade agreements.  Just 15 years ago, the OTLA's predecessor (the National Administrative Office - NAO) declined to review a petition from the Florida Tomato Exchange alleging that farmers in Mexico utilized child labor to grow and harvest tomatoes, reasoning that the U.S. tomato producers did not supplement their allegations with additional facts.  Such a high standard made it difficult for NGOs, human rights organizations and trade unions - and even business trade associations - to persuade the U.S. DOL to examine lapses in labor law enforcement if they lack the budgetary or technical capacity to produce the kinds of facts that would persuade the U.S. DOL to accept a petition for review.  Thus, an opportunity to address child labor in agriculture in Mexico - along with the unfair trade implications of child labor - was lost 15 years ago.  The shift in the OTLA's methodology may make it easier for advocacy groups to file petitions and bring more attention to child and forced labor issues among U.S. trade partners.

The report also shows that over 200 years after Haiti became independent, Haitian migrant workers still work in slave-like conditions on Dominican sugarcane plantations.  Although the report does not explicitly address the issue of racism, it appears that Haitian sugarcane workers and their families are continually exposed to racial, ethnic and national discrimination in the Dominican Republic.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) denounced a recent decision of the Supreme Court of the Dominican Republic that denied and revoked citizenship status of Dominicans of Haitian descent born in Dominican territory.  According to the IACHR, the court decision strips tens of thousands of people of Dominican citizenship. Discrimination against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent plays a role in the prevalence of child and forced labor in Dominican agriculture.  Lack of legal clarity about the citizenship of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic perpetuates child labor and poverty and will make it even more difficult for employers, worker rights organizations, NGOs and government authorities to find a solution to child labor in Dominican agriculture.  I would argue that the situation also hampers sustainable economic development in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic because it precludes access to education and social security among a significant immigrant community in the Dominican Republic.  Access to education and social security could improve the labor market outcomes for Haitians and alleviate poverty in both countries.

The $10 million grant issued by the U.S. Department to address child labor in agriculture in the Dominican Republic is a major step forward in the types of remedies and solutions available as a result of labor petitions filed under U.S. FTAs.  Such grants greatly increase the potential positive outcomes of such petitions, showing that it is possible for civil society to utilize the labor petition process under FTAs to affect the international aid process.  Nevertheless, the facts discussed in the OTLA's report cry out for even more creative and innovative regional solutions - such as negotiation of a broad ranging Social Security Agreement between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as an internationally funded program and campaign to provide documentation to all unregistered children of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic.

A number of obstacles exist to the negotiation of a Social Security Agreement between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but the time and circumstances may be right for the international community to press for just such an agreement.  Although Haiti and the Dominican Republic share both an island and a labor market, a December 10, 2013 article in the St. Maarten Island Times highlights how the relationship between the two nations has deteriorated in light of the recent citizenship decision issued by the Dominican Supreme Court.  In addition to international approbation by both the U.S. OTLA and IACHR, the Dominican Republic's action has been condemned by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), which as a result of the Supreme Court decision has deferred the Dominican Republic's application for full membership in the regional organization. Potential trade sanctions under the CAFTA-DR resulting from mistreatment of Haitian migrant workers as well as the prospect of full membership in CARICOM can be utilized as leverage by the Organization of American States, CARICOM and international trade partners such as the U.S. and  European Union to bring the Dominican Republic to the table to negotiate a Social Security Agreement with Haiti and address other issues related to the two nations' joint labor market and unresolved citizenship issues.

While the darkest hour may be before the dawn, the dawn may not come for Haitian migrant agricultural workers in the Dominican Republic if the international community does not seize this rare historical opportunity to press for a Social Security Agreement between these two island nations.

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