Are Your Sweeteners Really Worth It?

By Kendra Roberts

The world is constantly in flux with goods and services, which isn’t news to anybody, but what happens when those goods are tainted with the blood of humans? What happens when the sugar in your coffee or in your candy bar is produced by hands that bled, bodies that were whipped, and children who were exploited? That is a reality for many sugarcane workers in the Dominican Republic.

“A batey is a company town where sugar workers live. They are mainly found in Cuba and the Dominican Republic” (Harrison 141).  

One problem with such a corrupt industry is the coverage it receives. News stations like CNN believe there is no real reason to worry about these sugarcane workers. According to Anderson Cooper’s blog, this is not an issue regarding slavery but an ethical issue that can easily be fixed by implementing safer working environments for these hard-working people (par 2). The problem is that Mr. Cooper later contradicts himself in the same blog post: “While outside the limits of the tour, [there] was a batey with [n]o running water, no electricity, too little food. The old or infirm looked like they were starving” (par 5). Mr. Cooper visits a batey (scheduled for the real tour) and then sees a batey down the road, sees the living conditions, sees the people starving and sick and just considers this an ethical issue. Mr. Cooper is missing one key issue with the bateys – Haitian sugar workers are not allowed to leave the batey once they are trafficked to the sugar fields. Once shoved into a batey, the cane workers stay in the batey.

“Fair-Trade is a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers and promote sustainable practices” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

sugar-tea

Does your spot of sugar = a spot of slave labor?

Modern slavery exists whether others want to believe it or not. But it’s here, in plain sight, as shown in the documentary The Price of Sugar.  In the documentary, we see that the bateys are topped with barbed wire where the overseers of the sugar fields sometimes lock the workers in at night.  According to Michelle Harrison, “Dominican [a]uthorities… employ over 40,000 Haitians” (141). This means at least 40,000 people are being held captive in bateys and ordered to work on sugar plantations. All those who are taken violently from their homes are forced to live in bateys so there is no place for them to escape. In the book King Sugar, Harrison points out that the United States buys 80% of the Dominican Republic’s sugar. This means Americans consume 4/5 of the Dominican’s total sugar production each year. Do we really understand what this means? Eighty percent of the sugar in the United States right now has been touched by slave labor.

Sugarcane workers are “haul[ed] off public buses, arrest[ed] in their homes or at their jobs, and deliver[ed] to the cane fields” (Siasoco par 14).

Maybe if the idea of people dying over the sugar used for candy bars and other foods doesn’t make you upset, I’ll touch on the fact that children are just as susceptible to the cruelties of sugarcane slavery as the adults.  The children of the bateys are sometimes trafficked to other cities and then harvested for their organs. Michael Martin interviewed Amy Serrano, director of Sugar Babies, a documentary that follows children and their own personal stories of surviving in the bateys:

“The sugar industry is also linked to the trafficking of the organs of children who work on the sugar plantations there. They are taken to Mozambique and stripped of some of their organs, which are sold to wealthy families who need them for their children. It all comes back to sugar. Wherever it is harvested, we find exploitation and abuse at the worse levels” (Martin 165).

I’m sure when Americans think about sugarcane, they aren’t thinking about the children who don’t have access to education, running water, or basic healthcare. They aren’t thinking about the thousands of people who are exploited every year to create the sugar for their coffee, teas, and baking needs.

“Though most Americans believe slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation more than a century ago, the horrors of human beings held in bondage flourishes today(Siasoco par 16).

Whether we want to believe it or not, America is perpetuating a cycle of slavery by having a sugar trade agreement with the Dominican Republic. This isn’t a matter of working conditions; it’s a matter of Haitians being trafficked by the Dominican Republic military and then the United States benefiting from the process. By purchasing Fair-Trade sugar, we can start abolishing the need for trafficked workers. We can start abolishing the system of violence and exploitation.

Works Cited:

Cooper, Anderson. “Is Sugar Production Modern Day Slavery?” Anderson Cooper 360 Blog. CNN, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/anderson.cooper.360/blog/2006/12/is-sugar-production-modern-day-slavery.html

Harrison, Michelle. King Sugar. New York City: NYU, 2001. 138-151. Print.

Martin, Michael T. “Documenting Modern-Day Slavery in The Dominican Republic: An Interview With Amy Serrano.” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, And  Media Studies 25.74 [2] (2010): 161-171. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. www.merriam-webster.com

Siasoco, Ricco V. “Modern Slavery: Human Bondage in Africa, Asia, and the Dominican Republic.” Infoplease. Pearson Education, 18 Apr. 2001. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. www.infoplease.com/spot/slavery1.html

The Price of Sugar. Dir. Bill Haney. 2007. DVD.

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