WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats are calling on the Biden administration to investigate the mistreatment of sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic, saying "inhumane conditions" must not be tolerated in the U.S. supply chain.
In a joint statement, 15 members of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade said recent media reports have raised concerns about continued abuses in the industry eight years after a Labor Department investigation found evidence of low wages, child labor and substandard housing and medical care.
"These are desperately poor people, and there is an industry that's willing to exploit them," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who chairs the subcommittee, said in an interview last week. "It's really appalling that this has not been addressed. ... This has been a bipartisan failure."
The lawmakers cited an investigation by The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that described how the family of the late former president of one of the Dominican Republic's largest sugar companies turned to South Dakota in 2019 to finalize four new trusts. The trusts contained shares of the sugar company, Central Romana and personal wealth worth $14 million.
The stories were published as part of the Pandora Papers, an international investigation based on nearly 11.9 million financial records that documented how the wealthy and powerful secretly move money around the world.
Central Romana has for years been accused of exploiting laborers and forcibly evicting families from their homes. During a late-night raid in 2016, the company tore down makeshift shacks built by 60 impoverished families living without electricity or running water alongside Central Romana's fields.
In a previous statement to The Post and ICIJ, the company said it created more than 20,000 jobs and built more than 5,000 homes. The company said it works closely with a labor union to address wages and working conditions and denied that it illegally evicted the families, arguing the company has defended its property from "illegal land invasion."
Blumenauer and the other lawmakers also cited a September story by Mother Jones, published with the Center for Investigative Reporting, that described allegations of chronic debt, low wages and dangerous working conditions among Central Romana workers.
In their joint statement, lawmakers did not identify any company by name. Blumenauer said the committee will seek to work with Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative and a member of Biden's Cabinet who serves as the principal adviser and negotiator on U.S. trade policy. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Reached earlier this week, Central Romana said some members of the House subcommittee "have always been against the U.S. sugar program" and that media reports about forced labor are "based on false accusations."
Andrew Samet, a spokesperson for the Dominican Sugar Industry, said in an email that companies "welcome further engagement between the Biden Administration and the Dominican Government."
The companies "have transparently and publicly reported on labor conditions in the sector for near a decade," Samet said, adding that "allegations of trafficking, forced and child labor against them are unfounded" and play no part in the "operations of the private companies in 2021."
Advocates for Dominican families and sugar workers said an investigation is badly needed. "This is a clear message to the companies that they cannot abuse human rights and export their sugar to the United States in total impunity," said Laurence Blattmer, program coordinator at the Geneva-based Dominicans for Justice and Peace, which is working with the evicted families.
The push by Blumenauer's committee is the third call for action in Congress in the weeks following the Pandora Papers.
Earlier this month, the chairs of three congressional committees cited the Pandora Papers investigation in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen that called for the rapid implementation of legislation, signed into law this year, requiring limited liability companies to disclose their owners to a federal database.
"The value and urgency of these efforts are reinforced by the revelations of wrongdoing emerging from the latest leak of financial documents, the Pandora Papers," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed the most sweeping changes to anti-money laundering laws since 9/11, calling for stricter requirements on trust companies, law firms, art dealers and other so-called enablers that provide services to foreign clients.
Outside the United States, members of the European Parliament - citing the Pandora Papers - approved a resolution critical of South Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming, Delaware and Nevada for being "hubs of financial and corporate secrecy."
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Fitzgibbon is a reporter at ICIJ.