This past August, the group had a meeting with Maria Cabrera, the first woman to head the Dominican Teachers' Union. Maria now represents all of Latin America as an executive board member of Education International. During our August 2015 trip, we met with Maria to learn about the campaign for "Dignified Education." After Maria's presentation to our group, we joined a meeting of over 100 teachers and education activists planning actions in their community in support of their movement. The group has been successful in mobilizing thousands to take to the streets demanding that the Dominican government live up to its constitutional promise of dedicating at least 4% of GDP to funding education.
Another area of interest for FBB Teachers focuses on educational opportunities for students living in extreme poverty in areas referred to as bateyes. These are slum like areas that traditionally housed migrant workers brought in from Haiti to work in the sugarcane fields. Although batey life no longer revolves around sugar cane production, these communities still swell with the most impoverished of all Dominicans . Most seek day labor in agriculture, construction or the informal economy of chirpeo (selling food, clothing, memento, etc. as the roam the streets). As most of the students in batey communities are Dominicans of Haitian decent, they often face harsh discrimination limiting their education and employment opportunities. In some of the photos below, you will see examples of some of the learning that takes place between our groups as stories of struggle and triumph are shared.
Globalization, Free Trade and Fair Trade
Over the past seven years, our tour has taken our teachers delegation into to free trade zones to see first hand the working conditions in the factories and to hear from community members about their impact on the local community. Many of the clothes that we wear are made in the Dominican Republic under sweatshop conditions. Global trade agreements have established a low wage for the free trade zone, where workers earn only about 85 cents per hour. Imagine the worker who must take a bus to work, buy drinking water, something to eat, and also pay someone to look after her children. What would be left after all those expenses were deducted from a $5 daily wage?
Our itinerary permits us to tour these factories with management, speak with employees, and meet with union organizers outside of the free trade zone. One recent addition to our tour has included a visit to the Alta Gracia project, an experimental project where workers earn three times more than they would in the usual free trade zones. Thanks to the activism of Students Against Sweatshops, universities all over the United States are now selling college apparel made under more equitable working conditions. We spoke with workers who told us how that employment at Alta Gracia has meant that for the first time their families would have electricity or be able to afford to buy school uniforms for their own children. While not a perfect solution to the many problems generated by free trade, it represents an important innovation aimed at improving the lives of Dominican workers and promoting a model for more just and equitable labor relations. The workers at Alta Gracia never fail to to thank our students and to remind them that it was their activism that made this project a reality. The visit provides a moment of hope and encouragement; we look to Alta Gracia and can see first hand how student activism can make a real impact upon the world.
Extreme Poverty: Now the statistic has a face and a name
The word "batey" signifies a settlement of impoverished agricultural workers, usually from the sugar cane industry. However, in the wake of globalization, the sugar cane processing factory in the community we are visiting is currently out of operation. Some of the batey residents tell us that they believe the work has moved to Brazil. Others believe that there are new foreign owners of the factory who are waiting for sugar prices to climb before reopening. No one here really seems sure what the future will hold for those who formerly labored in the cane fields.
Here we meet the poorest of all Dominicans, many of them Haitian migrants or their undocumented descendents who have lived here for generations. Although these Dominicans of Haitian descent are not accepted as true Dominicans, few of them speak Kreyol and most of them have never even stepped foot in Haiti. Because the sugar cane industry (or their other modes of employment) does not pay them with sufficient income to live with dignity upon their own land, they live as squatters in this area, inhabiting ramshackle housing cobbled together from found materials. The more fortunate among them live in concrete structures with tin roofs, constructed by missionary organizations. Sleeping on dirt floors in overcrowded, inhumane conditions, they are a floating population wandering the streets, seeking day labor and charity.
Recent immigrants from Haiti, fleeing
political violence, starvation, and instability in their own country, are
the most vulnerable to exploitation. They arrive in the bateyes where they will
perform the least desirable tasks- backbreaking day labor in construction
or agriculture. As in the U.S., the migrant labor community is often made to be
a political scapegoat for all of the country's economic hardships. Random
deportations, police shakedowns and racially motivated vigilante violence are
all factors that contribute to the brutal quality of life that exists here.
One of the most moving visits of our tour took us to a garbage dump in Puerto Plata. Here we met men, women and children who survived by picking through the trash to collect plastic bottles. For our visit we would work along side them, and help in the effort to collect bottles. Many of the children we met were orphans from the recent earthquake in Haiti. These are the people who we hear about, each time UN statistics remind us how more than half of the world lives on less than $2 a day. Although many of the project participants were nervous about this meeting, their inhibitions and fears quickly melted away after a few minutes. Soon language barriers were crossed and a handshake, laughter and a common goal helped group members to cross yet another border to find our common humanity. Each of the members of the tour came back to our debriefing meeting full of stories to share about what they had learned about their partners and things they had observed.
That evening we would travel to a batey where the local community had organized a performance of traditional Afro-Carribbean music and dance, some of it associated with the spiritual Voudu tradition. More of a party than a concert, the event gave us a chance to see some of the same people who had been working in the dump in a different light. Here they were at home in their communities sharing rare cultural traditions from the African diaspora. The music featured many homemade traditional instruments such a tua-tua home, vaksen (bamboo trumpets), cha-cha maracas, the snail conch, and whistles. The music was chaotic and disorienting yet energizing. It is widely known as Gagá; the word itself indicating that someone is not in their normal state of mind but lost in the frenzy of the music.