US Bans Sugar Imports From Top Dominican Producer – Mother Jones Over Forced Labor Allegations

A worker in central Romana prepares a field for the upcoming sugar harvest in La Romana.Pedro Farias-Nardi

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The US will block A shipment of raw sugar from a top Dominican producer with close ties to two wealthy Florida businessmen after finding signs of forced labor on Caribbean plantations. Sugar from Central Romana Corp.’s cane fields feeds into the supply chains of major U.S. brands, including Domino’s and Hershey Co.

The ban on all imports from central Romana came into effect today.

“Manufacturers like Central Romana who fail to comply with our laws will face consequences as we root out these inhumane practices from the US supply chain,” said AnnMarie R. Highsmith, acting assistant director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade. press release.

The company is partly owned by Florida-based Fanjul Corp., a global sugar and real estate conglomerate.

A federal investigation found five signs of labor abuse among cane cutters employed and housed by Romana: abuse of power, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive working hours. The Central Romana plantation shipped more than 295 million pounds of raw sugar from the Dominican Republic to the United States last year.

The move follows a two-year investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting Mother Jones This led to criticism of the Dominican sugar industry from Democratic lawmakers in Washington.

Disclosure/Mother Jones A study released in September 2021 found dire conditions for cane cutters and their families, who often live in dilapidated company housing without electricity or running water. In more than 50 interviews, workers spoke of inadequate protective equipment, poor medical care, low pay, chronic debt and intimidation by the company’s armed security forces.

Thousands of men who harvest sugar cane for Central Romana are Haitian citizens or of Haitian descent, and many do not have legal status in the Dominican Republic. Unable to collect long-overdue pensions, some workers said they were forced to cut cane until they were 80 years old.

Lawmakers cited Reveal and Mother Jones and subsequent reports in urging the Biden administration to take action. The Washington Post and Jacobin.

An anonymous petition submitted to US Customs and Border Protection in October 2021 contained similar findings, alleging that cane cutters in Central Romania work without written contracts, endure abusive conditions, debt bondage and restricted mobility – forced labor as defined by the International Labor Organization. Organization of all indicators.

Central Romana is part of the sugar empire founded by Alfonso “Alfi” and José “Pepe” Fanjul starting in the 1960s. Florida businessmen and brothers led a group of investors in the purchase of Central Romana and its luxury resort Casa de Campo in 1984 and expanded further through a network of private holding companies, partnerships and affiliates.

A Central Romana spokesman said last year that the company does not disclose the identity of its board of directors or corporate officers. However, Alfonso Fanjul is listed as president of Central Romana in Dominican Republic press releases and recent corporate documents.

Fanjuls also co-founded the ASR Group, which controls the world’s largest chain of sugar refineries. ASR’s holdings include the popular Domino plant in Baltimore, which handled more than half of Central Romana’s U.S. shipments last year, according to trade data.

Central Romana did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but previously denied allegations of forced labor. The company said it has invested millions of dollars to improve the living conditions of cane cutters and their families, while paying twice the national minimum wage and working closely with labor unions.

Fanjul Corp., of which Alfonso is chairman and Jose is president. did not immediately respond to questions about the announcement. The company praised Central Romana as a “highly respected corporate citizen in the Dominican Republic” that “pride itself on its reputation for civic engagement and ethical business practices.”

The Dominican sugar industry has been plagued by allegations of labor exploitation for decades. Complaints to the US Department of Labor led the agency to begin sending monitoring teams to the Dominican Republic in 2013 under the terms of an international trade agreement.

In public annual reviews, the Department of Labor reported “positive steps” in preventing child and forced labor in the Dominican sugar sector, although it said progress was “uneven.” Behind the scenes, U.S. officials were concerned about the slow pace of reform at Central Romana and its suppliers, according to multiple redacted field reports and other documents obtained after Reveal sued the Labor Department.

In an undated report, cane cutters and their families live in small rooms in old barracks with open water on the floor and no bathrooms. Another 2018 document from the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo cited evidence of abusive working and living conditions and other problems at Central Romana, but noted that “further investigation” was needed to determine whether the situation would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection. did. Blocks exports to the US.

Human rights and labor groups and clergy have been advocating for better conditions for Haitian cane cutters for decades.

In January, 15 Democratic lawmakers Reveal/Mother Jones The investigation called on three federal agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection, to address “slave-like” conditions in the Dominican sugar industry. Their letter urged the agencies to review the alleged violations and consider policy options for the Biden administration, including banning any goods produced by forced labor under the Tariff Act.

In the face of such pressure from Washington, the Dominican government announced an increase in the minimum wage for agricultural workers and promised to register undocumented cane workers and pay pensions.

This is the first time in recent years that US Customs and Border Protection has used provisions of the Tariff Act to target sugar imports. But similar concerns about forced labor have led companies in Taiwan and Malaysia, respectively, to ban products such as seafood and palm oil, and products such as cotton and human hair believed to be made by Uighur Muslims persecuted in Chinese labor camps.

Analysts said the loss of Dominican sugar could disrupt the U.S. market, particularly in the Northeast, where ASR operates two major refineries.

Although Central Romana accounts for about 7 percent of total U.S. raw sugar imports, a supply cut could add “uncertainty” to an already tight market, said Vincent O’Rourke, an analyst at Czarnikow Group, a London-based trade finance firm.

ASR supplies sugar to a wide range of food and beverage manufacturers, confectioners and grocery stores, and the chocolate factory is partnered with Hershey, located 90 miles from ASR’s Domino processing plant in Baltimore.

Hershey spokesman Jeff Beckman declined previous requests for a detailed breakdown of sugar purchases, but the company claimed 100 percent of its sugar came from responsible and sustainable sources in 2020.

Losing access to the US market, even temporarily, could cost Central Romana tens of millions of dollars annually. The Dominican Republic is the second-largest exporter of raw sugar to the United States under a complex federal system that protects local producers by limiting imports. The US is a valuable market, paying well above the world market price due to congressionally supported sugar prices. Central Romana typically accounts for about two-thirds of the Dominican quota and enjoys low tariffs on its exports to the United States.

This story has been co-produced Statement from the Center for Investigative Reporting and with support Pulitzer Center. Edited by Kate Howard and Clint Hendler and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Sandy Tolan can be reached at atolan@usc.edu and Michael Montgomery can be reached. mmontgomery@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @Sandy_Tolan and @mdmontgomery.