For most of the twentieth century, sugar was the crop around which the Dominican economy revolved. Though tourism recently replaced it as the top source of foreign currency, sugar plantations still exist all along the southern half of the island, their vast expanses of cane harvested by migrant Haitian labourers who live in meagre company barracks known as bateyes.
As early as the late nineteenth century, depressed sugar prices made Dominican labour too expensive for the sugar companies, and masses of migrant workers were imported from the British Antilles to fill the void. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, even this labour became too expensive, and formal agreements were reached that paid the Haitian government to recruit and export tens of thousands of cane cutters each year. The batey workers came from the poorest rural parts of Haiti, encouraged by the opportunity to save US$30–50 over the course of a season – in four or five years that would be enough to build a modest house and work a small subsistence farm back in their home country. Many, however, have come back empty-handed or, worse, never left at all.
The formal agreement has dissolved, and Haitians who cross into the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar fields do so aba fil (under the fence). Since the earthquake in 2010, thousands more Haitians have poured over the border in desperation for work, making the bateyes more crowded and wages even lower.
Batey life involves horribly substandard conditions. Manually cutting cane with machetes is backbreaking work, and the labourers are paid as little as RD$3 per tonne. They have to work at least fourteen hours a day in order to feed themselves, pay a baroque system of bribes to police officers and company officials and save a few pesos for the return to Haiti. Most bateyes have no bathrooms or running water, and workers must walk a kilometre or more for water and sleep five or six to a small room. Every year thousands of Haitians fail to earn enough for the journey home, and are forced to stay in the batey during the dead season, when there’s little work available. The inhuman conditions have led various international human rights groups to declare the situation tantamount to slavery, but there has been little in the way of reform to date.