My passion for helping children in need began while working with P&G and architecting its CSR platform Live, Learn and Thrive. As a mother, the plight of children who cannot help themselves and are born into unfortunate circumstances is almost overwhelming. I’ve done many things to help children and families, including a recent week-long humanitarian aid trip to Centro Buen Pastor – a facility that operates as a health clinic, school, church, and nutrition center in a poor barrio called Las Flores in San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic. Because I’m lucky enough to be a Cone employee, the trip was considered official agency time – international volunteerism - as part of our Hours for Good program.
In addition to working at Centro on painting a health clinic and developing its strategic plan, our group went to “visit” the Batey Doña Lila - a sugar cane plantation with an impoverished Haitian Worker community - to provide them with “refreshments” and donations of flip-flops. That’s how it was described before we went. (I know, it sounds so small...)
The unpaved route we took for several miles into the cane forest to the Batey was filled with holes and dust and the occasional pile of rocks left as if for a someday repair. We traveled along at no more than five miles per hour. The Batey was a community of about 200 people, in many large family groups, living in cement structures (strong in a hurricane, but like an oven in the heat) in the center of a virtual forest of sugar cane. While there, we met with their Episcopal priest. He talked with us about the residents’ work. My questions, in rudimentary Spanish about what ages children started working in the fields with their families, were met with indirect answers. I started thinking and asking about child labor and human rights.
While at the Batey, we heard about the plight of these workers. People come from Haiti (the poorest country in our hemisphere) to work at the Bateys. The pay is by the pound of harvested cane – so the young, old and infirmed are suffering. (I’ve done research since getting back, reports show the pay is $2 for each ton of sugar; other reports quote $1-2 per day for 16 hours of work.)
They can live on the Batey as long as they can work. If they cannot work, they have to leave – to go where is unclear; Haiti doesn’t want them back. And, for those who are born to Haitian parents at a Dominican Batey, the human rights issues are worse. These Haitian-Dominican children with Haitian last names can attend school – they walk three miles through the sugar cane to the main road where they wait for a public bus to take them to town to go to school for three hours – IF they can afford the tuition, uniform and books. If not, these children work on the Batey. But, when they turn 18, the Dominican government won’t give them the right to work – the equivalent of a US social security number – and tries to send them back to Haiti. However, the Haitian government doesn’t want them either. They have most likely never even been to Haiti (only 6% are Haitian born) and possibly don’t even speak Haitian Kreyol. And of course, if they got to Haiti, when they tried to return to the Dominican Republic to their families, they wouldn’t be allowed back in.
The work is back breaking and dangerous (swinging a machete). I saw several children with cuts and burns on their hands, legs and feet.
There was no running water. A group of strong men were taking turns hand-pulling buckets of water from a well – I can’t imagine it would have been safe to drink. There was no evidence of sanitation.
The adults eyes were so sad...they seemed hollow.
Going to the Batey was something I’ll never forget: How could I have not known where I was going? How could I have not brought something to help? Flip-flops???? What difference could that possibly make? What should I have done? We were told we were probably the only outsiders the Batey had ever seen. My questions about living conditions and human rights didn’t contribute to any solution for children in need; they only raised my awareness of what was happening. The research I’ve done back home only makes the atrocities around me feel even greater. I was only minimally aware of the child labor and immigration issues. I had no idea of the hopelessness or tragic futures for the children we met. Imagine how many people are affected every day...
“According to a 1999 Dominican Republic’s State Sugar Council—CEA’s Bateyes Sugar Mills survey, ... the bateyes lodge 43,154 families with around 200,000 habitants, representing 2% of the country’s total population.
- The population is young: 29 percent of the population is under five years of age and 55 are under 15 years of age.
- Only 6 percent reported Haitian birth and only 3.5 percent reported having a Haitian birth certificate. The great majority of present batey inhabitants are second generation Haitians or Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic.”
To learn more, go to The Batey Relief Alliance website.
The list of those concerned is long and influential, but poverty and human rights issues are not improving. Now that I’m back in the states, I think the most positive impact I can make is to raise awareness of the Batey habitants’ plight and hopefully to catalyze fundraising. To follow the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative to help minimize the plight of these children and their families, please consider making a donation.
- Alana Schmitt Burns, Former Vice President, Cause Branding