The Bitter Work Behind Sugar

The Bitter Work Behind Sugar

By The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

Sugar is a big part of Americans’ daily diet, but we rarely ask where that sweet cane comes from.  

In November, the United States announced that it will block all imports of raw sugar from one of those sources: the cane fields owned by the Central Romana Corp. in the Dominican Republic. U.S. Customs and Border Protection cited labor abuses in its decision. Sugar from Central Romana feeds into the supply chains of major U.S. brands, including Domino and Hershey. 

The federal government’s action follows a two-year investigation by Reveal and Mother Jones. Reporters Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel visited Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic who do the backbreaking work of cutting sugarcane for little pay. Central Romana is the Dominican Republic’s largest private employer and has strong links to two powerful Florida businessmen, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul. The reporters speak to workers who have no access to government pensions, so they’re forced to work in the fields into their 80s for as little as $3 a day. In the 1990s, Tolan reported on human trafficking and child labor in the Dominican sugar industry. Conditions improved following pressure on the government from local activists, human rights groups and the U.S. Labor Department. But major problems have persisted.  

After Reveal’s story first aired in fall 2021, Congress took action. Fifteen members of the House Ways and Means Committee called on federal agencies to formulate a plan to address what they called the “slave-like conditions” in the Dominican cane fields. Central Romana also took action: It bulldozed one of the worker camps our reporters visited, claiming it was part of an improvement program. Residents say that with very little warning, they were told to pack up their lives. Central Romana denies the U.S. government’s recent findings that its cane cutters are working under forced labor conditions.

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in September 2021. 

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