By Manuel Perez Bella
San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, May 13 (EFE).- A group of undocumented Haitian immigrants are deported from the Dominican Republic via the northern Dajabon border crossing; in a matter of weeks, the price of a plate of rice and beans is higher in Santo Domingo.
That cause-and-effect relationship may not be readily apparent, but it makes perfect sense to farmers in the western Dominican province of San Juan, one of the Caribbean nation’s primary agricultural regions.
In its fertile valleys at the foot of the Cordillera Central mountain range, nine of every 10 rural workers are Haitian, most of whom are undocumented and easy targets of deportation campaigns.
Thus far in 2021, 6,162 Haitians have been deported to their impoverished homeland, according to official Dominican figures.
The availability of low-cost Haitian labor has been further affected by the pandemic, with more than 200,000 Haitians voluntarily returning home since the start of the health emergency, according to International Organization for Migration figures.
“There’s been a lot of difficulty finding (laborers) this year, and that leads to problems with the harvest and different tasks,” farmer Agustin Baez told Efe.
That rural producer estimates that his production costs have soared by between 20 percent and 25 percent this year due to a scarcity of workers, a particularly acute problem in the case of labor-intensive crops like vegetables and beans.
In some cases, farmers have absorbed the increase to prevent further upward pressure on food prices, which have risen in recent months due to climatic factors and the higher cost of fertilizer and other inputs.
Farmers in San Juan province depend on Haitian laborers to replace the thousands of Dominicans who have left the countryside for better-paid work in the cities, the director of the Association of Agricultural Producers of the San Juan Valley, Manuel Matos, said.
A glance at any crop field in San Juan substantiates that affirmation. In one pigeon pea farm in the Pedro Corto district, Haitians are the only people in sight; in a nearby sweet potato field, there are 20 Haitians and just three Dominicans: the employer, his son and a worker who guides two oxen with a hoe.
On Rufino Perez’s farm, 22 Haitians are employed during the onion season for tasks that include removing weeds and fumigation work.
When immigration authorities deport all the workers the weeds grow out of control, Perez said, adding that farm output also suffers and occasionally there are too few laborers to collect the harvest.
The Dominican Labor Code requires companies to reserve 80 percent of their positions for Dominican nationals, but due to a scarcity of workers that rule is ignored in practice in both the farming sector and the construction industry.
“No more than 3-4 percent (of rural workers) are Dominican, here and in the rest of the country. We can’t put a band-aid on that reality. We going to assume that reality and try to find solutions,” Matos said.
Dominican farmers also typically flout the requirement to regularize their immigrant workforce. Banana plantations are the lone exception, since under an export agreement with the European Union they must hire their personnel via legal channels.
Foreign workers can pay around $300 a year to regularize their status, an amount that is practically a “steal,” the director of the General Directorate of Migration, Enrique Garcia, told Efe.
But Haitian laborers earning around 500 pesos ($8.70) per day of work may beg to differ. EFE