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Haitian cane-cutters struggle

Little has changed in the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic since the 1870s - including how workers fare.

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Large-scale sugar production began in the Dominican Republic in the 1870s. In many ways, little about the process has changed since then: The sugar cane still grows tall, wild, and sweet, and Haitian laborers - poor, desperate, and hungry - still work day in, day out, to cut it.

The Haitian workers, then as now, typically live in bateyes - company towns located within the sugar plantations. Some have electricity. Most lack running water. There are no phones, no playgrounds, and no mattresses on many of the rickety beds. The workers earn, typically, the equivalent of $2.50 a day, out of which they often must pay a percentage for company social security and pension funds - money, they say, they never see again.

Until this year, salaries were paid not in cash, but in vouchers, which then could be exchanged, with commission taken out, only at the company store. The work is as hard as the pay is bad: The workers stretch and bend for about 12 hours per day in the tropical sun, cutting down the cane, stripping off the leaves, chopping it into small pieces, and piling it up. They wear no protective gear and must buy their own machetes - and pay for sharpening them.

Boss men on horseback come to check on their progress. Tractors drive up every few hours to take the cut cane to a processing plant.

There are no breaks here. Still, the situation is better than what many Haitians face back home. Haiti, a country of 8 million, is about half the size of the Dominican Republic, which has roughly the same population. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its Gross National Product - a measurement of the goods and services the country's citizens produce - is less than one-quarter that of the Dominican Republic. Unemployment stands at roughly 75 percent - compared with 17 percent in the Dominican Republic. Political instability in Haiti and increasing violence in the capital over the last few years have pushed more Haitians into the Dominican Republic. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million Haitians live here today, most of them illegally. That's nearly 1 in 9 of all Haitians who live on Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.


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