Labor Rights in the Dominican Bateys

Communications Officer Sara Fajardo is traveling in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, reporting on CRS programs and sharing her experiences with us.

When labor lawyer Michel Valdemar arrives to a Batey on the outskirts of San Pedro Marcorís in the Dominican Republic, it is not a visit, it’s an event.

The word spreads, the community center fills, benches spill over with attendees. Like the people that Michel helps, he is Haitian. Like them he shares a history, a culture, and a language. In fact Michel speaks many languages: Spanish, French, English, Creole, German, but the most important language that Michel speaks to his friends in the Bateys, is the language of law.

As a representative of CRS partner Centro de Derechos Laborales (CDL- Labor Rights Center), Michel tells his fellow immigrants about their rights. They may be undocumented but they are still protected under the legal system. His tools are simple: a thick tome of Dominican law, a series of sheets to jot down labor disputes, and a packet of brochures and posters in Creole and Spanish outlining the rights of workers.

Michel speaks in a loud, jovial voice, jokes freely, greets everyone with a firm handshake and a warm pat on the back. He asks after their families, knows everyone by name. Unaccustomed to being heard, the workers, dressed in worn thin but well washed clothes surround Michel, each take their turn lodging a complaint.

“Mi patron (My boss),” one says, “verbally abused me, called me names for being Haitian. Threatened me.” Others tell of month after month of being paid for only 7-8 days when they worked 10 days straight. “I’d go to work with my stomach empty,” Delfo Porfirio says, “I wasn’t being paid my full wages and I didn’t earn enough to eat in the morning. But I had no choice I needed to keep working to feed my family.”

Their grievances are familiar. Michel hears them at each Batey he visits: verbal abuse, lost wages, dismissal without just cause. The workers bring paperwork with them, proof of severe labor violations, and Michel responds by writing down each detail, copying documents, taking down their names and phone numbers in careful even script.

It was always Michel’s dream to be a labor lawyer, to defend the rights of the disenfranchised. He dreamt it when he fled Haiti as a political refugee and entered the Dominican Republic in 1993. He dreamt it as he worked as a language professor at the local university. He dreamt it while raising his five children first as a married man and then as a single father, and he worked at it until he was granted a scholarship to the same university where he taught.

“I realized,” he says, “that there was a real lack of people who could defend Haitian workers in these cases, that there was really no one to help defend their rights.”

Michel follows up each complaint with a call to the employer. Often things are resolved quickly. “People are afraid of lawyers,” he laughs, “they don’t want things to go to the tribunals.”

But other times it requires he stop by their office with more formal charges. Employers rarely play innocent. They usually step up to their infractions and pay the corresponding fines.

On a recent visit to Batey Lima, however, Michel was dismayed. He’d been arming a case against a locally employer who had fired a group of workers, including Porfirio, without just cause after they’d filed complaints about not being paid full wages. By law they each were to be given a little over 20,000 Dominican pesos (around $570) and hadn’t received a thing two months after their dismissal.

Things were going well, it looked like the employer would pay out, but then on a day when Michel was tied up in meetings, the employer visited the Batey. Offered each worker half of what they were owed if they would sign a waiver saying they would pursue no future actions. Each one signed it, they were hungry, they were desperate, and didn’t know they had any other legal recourse. Michel shook his head in disbelief over the news. He took copies of their paperwork, even though it’s doubtful, he’ll continue to investigate if anything can be done.

A long road lies ahead for Michel and his co-workers at CDL. But Michel says, in the six months since it opened its doors, he feels happier, more satisfied, more fulfilled then he ever felt in the 20 years he taught languages for a living. He embraces his role as a legal mediator, and strives to be equally patient with both parties. When he speaks to employers, just as when he speaks to employees, he details the law, but he also speaks of responsibilities.

“Workers just like employers have responsibilities they must fulfill when on the job.” Michel says, ”By working together we can make things better for everyone.”

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One Response to “Labor Rights in the Dominican Bateys”

  1. Hugo Ayala Says:

    Cuando leo este tipo de historias, mis esperanzas se elevan y vuelvo a confirmar que Dios no se olvida de las personas menos afortunadas, pues permiten “ángeles terrenales” como Michel, con mística, compromiso para los suyos, profesionalismo y mucha capacidad. Exhorto a Michel para que siga adelante en la lucha por la defensa, reivindicación y vigencia de los derechos laborales de su pueblo.

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