The Dominican Republic (a former Spanish colony) and Haiti (a former French colony) share the same island of Hispaniola. Despite many common historical experiences, at times the countries have had strained relations over the last two centuries, due to differing ideologies as well as cultural and racial differences.
1900 to 1970s
The Dominican Sugar Industry (DSI) began to grow rapidly during the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (DR) from 1916-24. In parallel, the demand for labor also grew. Since the 1930s, Haitian cane cutters settled increasingly in the Dominican Republic. Starting in 1952, a series of bilateral agreements, or convenios, between the Dominican Republic and Haiti were signed under which Haitian laborers were brought into the Dominican Republic to work on sugar plantations for specified periods. In addition, undocumented workers routinely crossed the border in anticipation of work in the sector.
Although the convenios required the repatriation of temporary workers to Haiti at the end of each harvest, many remained behind. These resident populations settled in work camps known as bateyes that were originally constructed in the early twentieth century to house temporary contract workers. The camps were never designed to accommodate large numbers of people year-round. Moreover, as families began to settle in these camps, the infrastructure of the bateyes was severely tested and reports of inadequate living conditions began to surface.
The government-operated sugar industry also became associated with substandard working conditions, including underpayment of wages, inadequate medical care, physical abuse and servitude-like conditions. Some laborers reported that they were physically prevented from leaving their places of employment by armed overseers or military personnel.
1980s to 1990s
The conditions in the bateyes attracted international attention in the 1980s. In 1983 a factfinding mission by the ILO investigated these allegations and reported on labor abuses in the sector. For the next two decades, ILO supervisory bodies worked with both the Haitian and Dominican governments to monitor and remedy the issues.
While the last convenio came to an end in 1986, Haitian workers continued to migrate to the DR in pursuit of work. As a result, large numbers of undocumented workers resided in the Dominican Republic. The foreign criticism of the treatment of migrant workers led the Dominican government, to expel Haitians from the DR in 1991 -- a practice which continued through most of the 1990s.
2000s to Present
Haitian-labor migration continues to the present, influenced in large part by differences in economic growth and income opportunities between the two countries. In 2011, the DR’s per capita GDP was US$5,530 while Haiti’s was US$726. In addition, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti led to a new surge of Haitian migrants to the DR in search of employment and better living conditions. According to National Office of Statistics of the Dominican Republic, there were an estimated 458,233 Haitian immigrants living in the country in 2011.Haitian migrants work in many sectors beyond agriculture, including construction, transport and tourism.
Despite previous tensions, in recent years the Government of the DR has undertaken further efforts to improve bilateral relations with Haiti. Prompt earthquake relief efforts by the Dominican Republic are symbolic of the steps to resolve historical tensions.
Moreover, the country has also made strides in remedying previous labor-rights concerns in the sugar sector. The industry is regularly monitored by labor inspectors from the DR’s Ministry of Labor and none of the labor inspections performed since 2008 have recorded any instances of forced labor or child labor, despite unfounded allegations.
The Government also has a zero-tolerance policy for child labor and has developed a number of initiatives to eradicate child labor, including establishing a National Steering Committee to Eradicate Child Labor and a child labor unit within the Ministry of Labor.