SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The U.S. government is looking into allegations that Dominican sugar growers use child labor and keep workers in slave-like conditions as a possible violation of a free trade agreement, officials said Tuesday.
A delegation from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Trade and Labor Affairs is in the Caribbean country to review the allegations made by the Rev. Christopher Hartley, a Roman Catholic priest and advocate for the rights of Dominican sugar workers.
The U.S. Embassy said the delegation will review his allegations and determine if there have been any violations of the labor provisions of a trade agreement that was signed in 2004 and eliminated tariffs between the U.S., the Dominican Republic and five countries in Central America.
The Office of Trade and Labor Affairs has 180 days to review and publicly report on the charges.
"The review of the public submission in no way indicates a determination as to the validity or accuracy of the allegations," the embassy statement said.
Hartley, who spent nine years in the Dominican Republic before he was transferred in 2006, called the review a "magnificent" first step toward addressing long-standing abuse of the country's sugar workers, who are mostly migrants from neighboring Haiti or people of Haitian descent.
The priest has alleged that the Dominican sugar industry, dominated by three families, uses forced labor and trafficked workers, allows hazardous working conditions and provides inadequate medical and other benefits. The industry denies the allegations.
"This investigation is going to demonstrate that not just the Dominican government is negligent but the U.S. as well because it buys 200,000 tons of sugar every year from Dominican growers despite deplorable conditions," Hartley said in a phone interview from Madrid.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlos Morales Troncoso told reporters that Hartley was unfairly "denigrating" the Dominican sugar industry and ignoring improvement in working conditions made in recent years.