Leonor Mesille has spent most of his life bent over cutting sugar cane.
In 1947, he left Haiti for the Dominican Republic seeking food, money and opportunity. He ended up earning US$50 a month working on a plantation that exported most of its sugar to the United States.
At 71, he lives in a modest wooden structure with a tin roof. He has no retirement savings.
Over the past 19 years, Mesille has submitted the required paperwork on three separate occasions to collect his pension, which he says is owed to him for the 56 years paid into the social security system, a majority of which was spent working for Central Romana company.
Mesille said if he was granted a pension, he would collect an estimated US$100 per month, enough for food and access to healthcare. He blames government bureaucracy.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 sugar cane workers, the majority of which are Haitian immigrants, are still waiting for their pensions in the Dominican Republic, according to the Scalabriniana Association for the Service of Human Mobility, ASCALA, a local human rights organisation that focuses on immigrant rights, and the National Commission for Human Rights, CNDH.
Many are undereducated, undocumented immigrants struggling to navigate government bureaucracy, well-known for out-dated record-keeping. Others have struggled to prove that they are eligible for a pension because, like Mesille, they worked most of their lives undocumented.
The pension process paints a picture of the confusing way in which the Dominican system works, especially for Haitian immigrants.
The hardest requirement is to provide copies of their national identification cards. As an alternative, they may provide copies of their employment cards issued by the State Sugar Council, CEA, which operated the sugar mills where the majority of Haitian immigrants worked.
Labour activists say that many of the ageing former workers were lured to the Dominican Republic and ended up in jobs that rivalled slavery. As they’ve grown too old to work, the government has tried to deport some of them back to Haiti, but the retirees are fighting to stay in hopes that they can collect the pensions.
When the afternoon heat peaks, Mesille retreats to the shade underneath his avocado tree in his community, or batey, which is filled with scores of other people who work on sugar cane plantations.
On a recent afternoon, he recalled how he left his home five decades ago without saying goodbye to his family. “I thought I would come back after working and making lots of money and tell them then,” he said.
He never imagined he’d be sitting in his home counting beans for his next meal, hoping someone would bring him more food.
A web of paperwork
Bony Charles is a 66-year-old Haitian who lived most of his life as an undocumented worker in the Dominican Republic. Over the past four decades, he has collected at least three sets of working papers with different names: Boni Chalas, Boni Chanel and Boné Chalas.
Mistakes are easily made when translating Haitian Creole to Dominican Spanish. And Charles said that he accepted changes in the documents because he could not tell if they were right or wrong.
Charles is illiterate and uncomfortable with paperwork. “Every time you change the name you are a new employee,” says Idalina Bordignon, a lawyer, nun and director of ASCALA. The inconsistencies have made it difficult to prove that he’s earned his pension for the 41 years he worked for a mill under CEA.
Labour activists say that creating a worker ID number would lead to more accurate record-keeping. The government has been slow to respond and an alternate system has yet to be implemented.
Marius de Leon, the general director of the General Administration of Retirement and Pensions of the Treasury, says that he has been in talks with CEA to devise a plan, but “there is no established time for when it has to be done.”
Charles is particularly vulnerable to the current system because he doesn’t have any of his own paperwork to back up his identity — not even a birth certificate. He gave that and other personal documents to the buscon, a headhunter, who recruited him to work in the Dominican Republic 49 years ago. He was told it was for “safe-keeping,” but he never saw them again, he said.
He was promised a job working security at a bank, not cutting cane on a government-owned sugar plantation. He says he was tricked. “They sold us to the government for money,” he said.
What lies ahead
Idalina Bordignon has been working on Haitian immigrant issues in the Dominican Republic for the last 24 years and says the pension crisis is a profound failure on the part of the Dominican government. “In the moment of their lives of the utmost vulnerability, that is when they deny them their rights,” Bordignon said.
She doubts anything will be done to make good on paying out the pensions without international pressure from countries such as the United States. The US imports US$56 million of the Dominican Republic’s raw beet and cane sugar, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The US has intervened on other social issues in recent years, including campaigns to improve working conditions and curtail child labour.
“Maybe we’ll get international pressure and then some 100-150 will get their pensions,” says Bordignon, even though there are thousands waiting.
Domingo Juan, 65, says he expects to die before he sees his pension. Juan lost his birth certificate during Hurricane Georges in 1998 and without money or help, he says he cannot travel or sort it out.
“I’m waiting for God. I’m sick,” he said. “I can’t work. If it wasn’t for that woman (a neighbour), I wouldn’t be eating.”
This article was first published by the Miami Herald. You can find the accompanying photo essay here on Equal Times. Both reports were made possible by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.