[Many thanks, Teo!] Amy Bracken (Al Jazeera) reports on the conditions of sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic. She writes, “The sugar barons of America, the Fanjul brothers, have a cozy relationship with the US government.”
This is the second story in a two-part series. Read the first story, about the working conditions of the cane cutters on Dominican sugar plantations violating labor law, here.
WASHINGTON — Charlotte Ponticelli used to work for the State Department, but when she describes a recent visit to sugarcane plantations in the Dominican Republic, she ditches the diplomat speak.
“What I saw made me sick,” she says of the laborers’ living conditions. “[The cane workers] were skeletons wearing rags. One old man told us, ‘We have no access to anything from our pensions.’ They had worked for 40 to 50 years, and nothing … I wanted to cry all the way home. I thought, ‘After … all this work, this is how these people live?’”
By “all this work,” Ponticelli means the United States Department of Labor’s push to improve conditions for cane workers in the DR, one of the top sugar exporters to the U.S. As part of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA-DR, which went into effect in the Caribbean nation in 2007, signatory countries were required to enforce their own labor laws. The deal was promoted as a tool to improve worker conditions — just as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is being advertised now — but such promises are frequently broken. Four years into CAFTA-DR, an activist priest filed a complaint under the treaty about an alleged “laundry list” of abuses on Dominican sugar plantations, from work-hour and wage violations to unhygienic living conditions. Ponticelli, who previously headed the DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, facilitated meetings between Rev. Christopher Hartley and her old staff in Washington.
In 2013, after a two-year investigation, the department issued a report expressing concern that the Dominican government might be failing to protect sugar workers. The report was followed by three reviews, one every six months, that found working conditions still lacking. But as the DOL pushed for reform in Dominican sugar, members of Congress and other politicians maintained lucrative relationships with the royal family of cane: the Fanjuls.
The four Fanjul brothers have an outsize presence in both the Dominican Republic and the United States. In the DR, their American company, Central Romana, produces most of the country’s sugar. In the U.S., the Fanjuls also grow cane and spend heavily in Washington, ranking among the sugar industry’s top political donors and biggest spenders on lobbying. As big players in both countries, they benefit from a highly profitable combination of factors: In the DR, Central Romana pays some of the lowest wages in the country, produces most of the country’s allotment of sugar exported to the U.S. and, thanks to CAFTA-DR, pays dwindling tariffs for those exports. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Fanjuls sell their sugar at sometimes two to three times the global market price, thanks to import limits and price supports.
It’s the consummate immigrant success story. The Fanjul brothers and one sister, Alfonso, José, Andres, Alexander and Lian, come from a long line of powerful Cuban sugar producers. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the family fled to Florida. They began growing cane in and around the Everglades and in the 1980s expanded production to the Dominican Republic, where their company is now the country’s largest private landowner and employer.
In the United States, too, the Fanjuls are among the biggest cane growers, and they co-own the world’s largest refining company, American Sugar Refining, also known as ASR, which markets its product under the brand names Domino, C&H, Redpath, Tate & Lyle and Florida Crystals. The group owns or is a major shareholder in refineries in four U.S. states and six other countries. While the brothers run the business, Lian tends to the charities she founded to help people living in poverty near the Fanjuls’ business operations in Florida and the Dominican Republic. Representatives of the Fanjuls, including their companies and charities in the DR and Florida, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Despite their international holdings, the Fanjuls have kept their focus on ensuring that their U.S. operations are as secure and profitable as possible, with little pushback from the government. In last year’s election cycle, the Florida Crystals political action committee and the company’s employees together contributed more than $860,000 to candidates and political spending groups. Also in 2014, Florida Crystals spent more than $1 million lobbying Congress, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, largely on import tariffs and policies on biofuels and clean water.
The sugar industry, too, is a heavy donor. According to the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics, the industry gave more than $5 million to members of Congress in the last election cycle, an all-time high. What the industry gets in return for all this are domestic controls and import tariffs that keep prices up and profits high for U.S. sugar producers, perpetuating a controversial system. [. . .]
[Photo above: Andrés Michel, 75, lost an eye cultivating cane meant for the sugar company Central Romana. He still works the fields.]