Haitian workers jeopardized by new work permit requirements
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Friday June 15, 2012 – Haitian workers have long been a mainstay of agriculture, construction and other low-wage industries in the Dominican Republic, with hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the border in search of jobs in a country that is poor, but better off than their homeland.
But new requirements for work permits in the Dominican Republic are worrying employers, workers and their advocates, who maintain that it will become harder and more expensive to hire Haitian labour.
An estimated one-million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, which has a population of about ten million.
One migrant labourer, Romain Renelus, who works two jobs to earn $445 monthly to support his family in Haiti, said he would try to renew his expired visa and passport because of an expected increase in the scrutiny of migrants.
But he doubts it will be easy: a new passport will cost $129 and a visa $200. Currently, no work permits exist, but migrant workers have to present an entry visa and proof of residency to legally
work in the country.
Some migrant workers are concerned that their Dominican employers will deduct the costs of the new paperwork, estimated to reach $800, from their paychecks. The new law does not stipulate whether the employer or employee would pay for the documents needed to obtain a work permit, including a visa, passport, birth certificate, medical certificate and criminal background check. Any Haitian seeking a birth certificate has to return to Haiti to get it.
"This is going to be traumatic," said the Rev. Mario Serrano, a Roman Catholic priest who provides assistance to migrants and refugees and studies labour issues as the director of the nonprofit Bono Center. "No one is going to be able to comply with these rules."
The requirements took effect on June 1, but government says the rules won't be enforced until month-end. Employers will then need a work permit for each non-Dominican employee.
Human rights groups have long complained about Dominican immigration policies toward Haitians, calling on the country to revise deportation rules to ensure due process and avoid race-based discrimination.
An extensive report on the issue by Human Rights Watch a decade ago described the historic tensions between the neighboring countries and the Dominican Republic's deportations of suspected "Haitian-looking" people with darker skin.
Haitian Ambassador Fritz Cienas called on Dominican authorities last month to ensure the human rights of Haitian workers affected by the new work permit rules.
Creole-speaking Haiti and the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic share an island and a troubled history. Haiti invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic for more than 20 years in the 19th century and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitians in 1937 as he sought to remove them from the country.
After Haiti's 2010 earthquake, the Dominican Republic halted deportations and the country became a staging ground for relief efforts, reducing tensions between the neighboring countries.
But the new labour law appears to signal that the lull has ended and the Dominican Republic has resumed its pre-quake policies. Advocates for migrants say authorities are cracking down on suspicious documents and have refused to accept work visas issued in previous decades.
Haitian workers play an important role in the Dominican economy, with migrants accounting for about 80 percent of all workers in Dominican rice fields and 60 percent of those in banana fields, according to the private Agrobusiness Board.
Haitians also make up more than half of the country's construction workforce, with nearly 60 percent of them lacking documents, according to a Labor Department study released in February.
Agrobusiness Board Vice President Osmar Benitez said two of the country's largest growers have applied to legalize hundreds of employees in the past six months but obtained documents so far for only 42.
Migration Director Jose Ricardo Taveras said business owners will have one month to meet the new requirements, and he pledged that officials will not raid businesses to deport illegal migrants during that period. Taveras said the new rules are aimed at eliminating the "chaos generated by the current illegal status of the labor market that encourages foreign labor."
Employers who do not comply will face between $1,500 and $7,900 in penalties, and will also be required to ensure that all migrants return home once their contract expires.
The government has not said how it plans to enforce the new rules, but officials have already denied requests from business groups to delay enforcement.