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Stateless but Imperative: Haitian Workers in the Dominican Economy

Image via Aljazeera America

Chiero Ferristal, born in Haiti, has been working as a subway construction worker in the neighboring Dominican Republic since crossing the border in 2010. Like many of his Haitian counterparts, he fled in the wake of the earthquake, a catastrophe that exacerbated the already dismal labor prospects in his country. Under pitiful Dominican labor laws, however, his immigrant status renders him ineligible for the any of the workers’ rights that citizens of the Dominican Republic (DR) enjoy. This means he must “toil away in dust-filled underground sites, working without breathing masks to build the subway’s second line,” all while being denied health insurance by Dominican legislation. “If we had a good president […] helping us,” Carlo Collin, another Haitian worker in the DR, says, “we would never come here to be mistreated, to be looked at like animals, to not be cared for.”

A 122-mile long border longitudinally spans the island of Hispaniola to segregate the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This division is as much a physical separation of the two nations as it is a reinforcement of the chasms that Collin and Ferristal endure. These antagonistic relations have long pervaded the strife between Dominicans and Haitians, and are especially manifest in the exploitative relations between Dominican employers and Haitian employees in the DR workforce. Implicit in these relations are the centuries old racial prejudices of Dominicans against the “darker complexion” of Haitians.

The prevalence of antihaitianismo, a pejorative ideology which “serves elite interests well and has even been accepted by the great majority of the Dominican people as part of their political culture,” exacerbates the economic disparities between the two nations: while Haiti has been deemed the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, the Dominican Republic is a growing economy, spearheaded by formidable, flourishing tourism and service industries. Haiti’s per capita income is $250, one-tenth the Latin American average, with 80 percent of its population below the poverty line — a dismal reality compared to the DR’s 35 percent. From the perspective of Haiti’s struggling workforce, these discrepancies have made the Dominican Republic “an attractive outlet to Haiti’s stark labor prospects” (Cloud), and have prompted the massive migratory movements of Haitian workers into the Dominican Republic, to the point that which Haitians in the DR currently account for 12 percent of the Dominican population.

After Haitians cross the border into the DR, their conditions are arguably worse than at home. Whereas Dominican foreign policy towards Haiti has been ostensibly constructive, being the first nation to send humanitarian aid to Haiti after the disastrous earthquake of 2010, its domestic immigration policy towards Haitians is inadequate and discriminatory. “While Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic are the subject of discrimination, frequent violations of their human rights, and deportation, foreign relations with Haiti are non-confrontational and sometimes even cordial,” writes Dr. Ernesto Sagas.

The DR refuses to grant Haitian workers citizenship rights, thus confining them to menial, under-the-table jobs. This disables them from negotiating towards any sort of upwards mobility, and ultimately subjects them to the human rights abuses that proliferate in these circumstances. Furthermore, Dominican policy does not allow them to be trade union members, “leaving them without a voice on the job or access to the pensions or social security systems that they contribute to,” remarks an AFL-CIO report. Nevertheless, such jobs support the growth of the DR’s service and tourism industries, especially by providing the manual labor vital for constructing new hotels and complexes. Consequentially, Carlo Collin, Chiero Ferristal and the rest of the Haitian workers in the DR are subjected to maintain the economic growth of a nation that refuses their citizenship. Dominican economist, historian and former ambassador Bernardo Vega poignantly sums up this “open secret” as characteristic of Dominican immigration policy and society: “We don’t want [Haitians], but we need them.”

There is a long historical precedent of institutional animosity towards Haitians by the DR. During the Trujillo era of 1931-1960, Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s infamously violent dictator, led a regime of oppression, which has enduring effects on the race relations of today. Among other atrocities, Trujillo’s militia committed the Parsley Massacre, during which more than 20,000 Haitians were massacred over the course of five days in October 1937. Trujillo’s government made no effort to conceal the fact that such xenophobic acts were committed in the hopes of eradicating those who were allegedly poisoning his desired “whiteness” of the Dominican diaspora. One of Trujillo’s handbooks for rural mayors explicitly warns against “Haitianizing influences, whose consequences will always be extremely fatal for Dominican society.”

Since Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, and the brief, fleeting years of tolerance that ensued under President Juan Bosch, the Dominican government’s attitude towards Haitians has morphed from overt repression to inaction when it comes to pressing issues for migrant populations. Inadequate immigration policies refuse to legally acknowledge Haitians living in the DR, and recently went so far as to pass legislation that rendered those who had been born in the DR, but whose parents had been born in Haiti, non-citizens of the Dominican Republic. This law garnered international attention for its controversy, as it rendered an entire generation, who had never known anywhere else but the DR to be their home, stateless. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHCR) regarded the law as “a violation of numerous fundamental human rights, including the rights to nationality, equal protection, humane treatment, and recognition of legal personhood.” The implications of the denationalization of a specific population are inherently prejudiced, and are reminiscent of the Trujillo days when antihaitianismo was undisguised and rampant. The physical violence that was characteristic of the past has devolved into structural violence of today, the latter of which has proved to be an equally insidious force in constricting the rights and mobility of Haitians in the DR.

Pernicious immigration policies also make it difficult for both Haitian migrants and Dominican-born people with Haitian roots to move beyond manual labor jobs where worker exploitation amounts to human rights abuses. A systemic denial of citizenship opens the floodgates for the proliferation of physical violence inflicted upon Haitians in the Dominican workforce, which ranges from “underpayment and denial of physical abuse” to “imprisonment or indentured servitude,” a Denver University study details. More alarmingly, the study reveals that there are over 300,000 Haitian children trapped in the Dominican Republic, who are currently being exploited for both labor and sexual services. “The deliberate creation of a stateless underclass increases the already formidable risks of exploitation,” the AFL-CIO warned in the report. Once again, the Dominican governments’ inaction towards immigrants proves detrimental to the circumstances of Haitians in the country.

The government is, however, quick to take action when it comes to mass, unscrupulous deportations of Haitians. The first six months of 2008 saw more than 6,000 arbitrary deportations of Haitians, an Amnesty International Report found. Dominican Authorities are notorious for mass seizures and deportations based on skin color, practices that both the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have designated as overt noncompliance with international human rights standards. The proliferating deportations are the perfect storm, born of the physical violence in the workplace as it combines forces with the structural violence of immigration policy.

With dismal job prospects in their home country and the dangers and costs of immigrating overseas all too high, Haitian workers are stuck in a workforce in which their existence is only recognized in the context of prejudice and cheap labor. Their sole means of escape is by unwarranted deportations, which rips families apart, among other fallacies. Despite the fact that their plight has been recognized internationally by human rights organizations and labor movements, the exploitation of Haitian laborers is persisting and their legal status worsening. Meanwhile, the Dominican economy is benefitting at the expense of their health, circumstance, and human rights. There are hopes for reconciliation between Haitian workers and their Dominican hosts, though: an initiative by the Dominican government recognizing the humanity of Haitians living in the DR is the first step towards mitigating the downwards trajectory of Dominican-Haitian labor relations, and salvaging the lives of the estimated 1.5 million Haitians living in fear and anxiety in the Dominican Republic.

About the Author

Amalia Perez '18 is a Political Science and Development Studies concentrator from Washington, D.C. Along with serving as the Section Manager for BPR's Culture Section, she is an associate editor with the Brown Journal of World Affairs, an Undergraduate Fellow with the Latin American Studies Dept., and a volunteer with DARE. You can find her cooking and/or running late to something.