This week, Special Representative for International Labor Affairs (SRILA) Fay Rodríguez traveled to the Dominican Republic to reinforce President Biden’s Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally.

The visit comes on the heels of a new report from the Dominican Justice Initiative, which illustrated how the U.S. Department of State should strongly consider downgrading the Dominican Republic to Tier 3 in its forthcoming 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report.

SRILA Rodríguez is joined in the DR by USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Bama Athreya, who will meet with Dominican officials to further strengthen the rights of all workers in the Dominican Republic.

SRILA Rodríguez and Deputy Assistant Administrator Athreya are the tip of the administration’s spear on advancing internationally recognized labor rights practices, including ending forced labor and child labor. Their official visit to the Dominican Republic could not come at a more pressing time.

For years, government agencies have been raising the alarm on violations of human rights and international labor standards in the Dominican Republic. In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on Central Romana Corporation Limited, a Dominican sugar company, and seized all inbound products at American ports of entry. The CBP identified several indicators of forced labor in its investigation of Central Romana, including “abuse of vulnerability, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime.”

That same year, the U.S. Department of Labor identified sugarcane from the Dominican Republic in its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, and the U.S. Department of State placed the Dominican Republic on its Tier 2 list in their Trafficking in Persons Report.

Downgrade to Tier 3 List

The conditions since then have not improved. Downgrading the Dominican Republic to Tier 3 would empower President Biden to use his discretion to withhold certain U.S government “nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance” as defined by TVPA – a powerful source of leverage for driving positive change in the country.

The U.S. government’s own reporting documents the litany of human rights abuses in the Dominican Republic. The State Department’s 2023 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in the Dominican Republic and the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor concluded the following:

  • “The process for addressing labor violations through criminal courts could take years, leaving workers with limited protection in the meantime.” 
  • “Children in the Dominican Republic are subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including in commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking.”
  • “Government officials and law enforcement in tourist areas ignored or were complicit in the commercial sex industry, resulting in difficulties investigating and prosecuting child sex trafficking or the sexual exploitation of children.”

In 2022, during the United States-Dominican Republic High Level Dialogue on Institutional Reform, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights urged the Dominican government to “pass an updated trafficking in persons law, that is in line with international standards, and that will make it easier to prosecute those who would prey on children.”

In her remarks, Under Secretary Zeya emphasized that “the Dominican government must continue to make progress against human trafficking through effective investigation, prosecution, and conviction of traffickers; protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.”

The government of President Luis Abinader has not lived up to this commitment. In their visit this week, SRILA Rodríguez and Deputy Assistant Administrator Athreya must engage in a frank conversation with the Abinader government about these glaring violations of human rights and international labor standards.