Dominican sugar imports tied to forced labor rejected by US

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. government announced Wednesday that it will detain all imports of sugar and related products made in the Dominican Republic by Central Romana Corporation, Ltd. amid allegations that it uses forced labor.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection investigation found that the company allegedly isolated workers, withheld wages, fostered abusive working and living conditions and pushed for excessive overtime, the agency said in a news release.

“Manufacturers like Central Romana, who fail to abide by our laws, will face consequences as we root out these inhumane practices from U.S. supply chains,” said AnnMarie Highsmith with the CBP’s Office of Trade.

A spokeswoman for the company did not immediately return a text message seeking comment. La Central Romana, which has long faced those types of accusations, is the Dominican Republic's largest sugar producer.

The announcement was cheered by activists who have long decried the treatment of tens of thousands of workers who live and work on sprawling sugarcane fields, many of them Haitian migrants or descendants of them.

“This is needed to improve their situation,” Roudy Joseph, a labor rights activist in the Dominican Republic, said in a phone interview. “We’ve been asking for improvements for decades.”

The Associated Press last year visited several sugarcane fields owned by Central Romana where workers complained about a lack of wages, being forced to live in cramped housing that lacked water and restrictive rules including not being allowed to grow a garden to feed their families since transportation to the nearest grocery store miles away was too costly.

Joseph noted that at least 6,000 workers also are demanding pensions they never obtained despite paying their dues.

Sugarcane workers also have organized several protests this year to demand permanent residencies after working for decades in the Dominican Republic as the country cracks down on Haitian migrants under the administration of President Luis Abinader in a move that has drawn heavy international criticism.

Central Romana produced nearly 400,000 tons (363,000 metric tons) of sugar in the harvest period that ended last year after grinding more than 3.4 million tons (3 million metric tons) of cane, according to the company.

Dánica Coto, The Associated Press