PRECARIOUS WORK – Dominican Republic

Lack of documentation leaves Dominicans of Haitian descent on the margins

Laura Quintana Soms

The Dominican Republic (DR) is a Caribbean paradise, enjoyed every year by millions of tourists. However, its beaches and resorts hide a much starker reality of extreme poverty, racism and nationalism, rooted in the country’s history. Located in the eastern half of Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, the DR has a strong Spanish influence and is significantly more affluent than its neighbour, Haiti. The latter, a former French colony whose population rose up successfully against its enslavement in the early nineteenth century, still contends with a legacy of exploitation, impoverishment and violence more than 200 years on. 

The relationship between the two countries has long been defined by inequality, reflected in the continued flow of workers from Haiti to the DR to engage in cutting sugar cane and other forms of agricultural labour. Over the years, the workers settled permanently in Dominican territory, bringing their families to live in neighbourhoods called bateyes, in the same cane fields where they worked. However, during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930–61) anti-Haitianism became a central state policy, with Trujillo ordering the murder in 1937 of between 5,000 and 25,000 Haitians who were located on Dominican farms in the border area in the so-called ‘Parsley Massacre’. 

In subsequent years, the government promoted interstate agreements between the DR and Haiti to obtain cheap labour and facilitate the entry of agricultural workers. However, many were not officially recorded in the country’s civil registry, including large numbers who had been born in the country. This meant that by the 1990s, when the Central Electoral Board began to digitalize its records, their status became contested. This enabled the formalization of discriminatory practices, from denying birth registration to arbitrarily suspending identity documents, culminating in a disastrous 2013 judgment by the country’s Constitutional Court: this ruled, retroactively, that children born in the DR between 1929 and 2010 of foreign parents in an irregular migratory situation had never had Dominican nationality. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people were left at risk of statelessness and their fundamental rights to education, health or work were denied. 

To resolve this, in August 2014 Law 169/14 was approved, establishing a plan to naturalize those people affected by ruling 168/13, estimated to be some 200,000 people, although there were no exact numbers. This divided the population into two groups: (a) people born in the DR and registered under the civil registry; and (b) people born in the DR but never registered. In this context, the deportations to Haiti of people who had no connection to the country began. At the same time, hate crimes against Dominicans of Haitian descent increased with the growth of nationalist groups. Many of those who managed to remain in the country, however, are still struggling with opaque and cumbersome administrative processes to secure official documentation. According to estimates by the Center for Migration Observation and Social Development in the Caribbean (OBMICA) published in 2021, seven years after the passage of Law 169/14, there were still more than 90,000 people without documentation, compared to only 26,000 who had resolved their status.

Seven years after the passage of Law 169/14, there were still more than 90,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent without documentation.

While the nature of the work available to Dominicans of Haitian descent has diversified over the years, with many now working in construction in tourist areas or in paid domestic work, they continue to be constrained by their lack of documentation. Unable to access formal employment in hotels and stores, they instead rely on uncontracted labour. According to Bridget Wooding, head of OBMICA, ‘Everything is informal – they use networks of contacts.’ As many are not provided with written contracts, ‘everything depends on the word of the employer and then there is an inequality of power’ – meaning that, as a result, ‘wages remain miserable’. 

There is also the issue of discrimination. ‘It happens all the time,’ says Wooding, ‘and it comes from the hair or the presence of the person. What has happened with Dominicans of Haitian descent who cannot have their papers is that they are exposed to erroneous expulsions. For example, there is the case of a pregnant 17-year-old Dominican girl who was about to be deported to Haiti, but she was able to find her birth vaccination card and thus was able to avoid it.’ In this context, labour rights can easily be abused and, as a result, Dominicans of Haitian descent may be pushed into poorly paid, exploitative situations – even prostitution or trafficking. Their lack of paperwork also means that established rights and benefits, such as health care and pensions, are unavailable or at best precarious. 

Liliana Dolis, who heads the Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico- Haitianas (MUDHA), an NGO focusing specifically on the challenges facing Dominican women of Haitian descent, also emphasizes the role of gender inequalities in deepening vulnerability. While Dominican men of Haitian descent working in construction, agriculture or other areas of the informal economy can earn around 1,000 Dominican pesos (around US$18) a day, women – engaged for the most part as domestic workers – earn a fraction of these wages. Others earn meagre incomes as street vendors. The situation of female workers was particularly impacted by the outbreak of Covid-19. During the pandemic, says Dolis, ‘many women who worked in paid domestic work lost their jobs without receiving any benefits, and street vendors were unable to go out to work’. 

The predicament facing Dominican women of Haitian descent is underpinned by the continued denial of their official papers. As Dolis emphasizes, ‘The non-regularization of their documents makes them vulnerable to deportation whenever the migration authorities want, and not being able to collect the money they have earned working because of not having documentation.’ While there are hopes that international pressure could accelerate the much-delayed process of recognition – in March 2022, for instance, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing with Dominican civil society to discuss the human rights situation of migrants, their families and their descendants in the country – NGOs and activists play a crucial role in highlighting abuses and advocating for change. In the face of these abuses, workers are also mobilizing to challenge the status quo. ‘The state’, says Dolis, ‘does not recognize the right of sugar cane workers, for example, to a pension for the times worked. There is now a movement of cane workers and their families who fight for this.’

Photo: A Dominican woman of Haitian descent. Credit: Miguelito Teodo Lafler