Dominican Republic 1978

Gulf & Western’s ‘Slave Labor Camp’ in Dominican Republic
Armed Guards and Barbed Wire Keep Unions Out

Author: Susan Wald;
First Published: November 6, 1978;
Source: Intercontinental Press, Vol.16, No. 42, p.1232;
Transcribed: by Amaury Rodriguez, 2019;

Transcriber’s note: This article appeared in Intercontinental Press (IP), a weekly magazine published in New York on behalf on the Fourth International from 1963 to 1986. I thank Pathfinder Press for granting me permission to post this article.

Imagine working at a job where the maximum pay is thirty-four cents an hour, where unpaid overtime is common, where seniority is non-existent and you can be fired at any time with no reasons given. If you are thrown out of work, or disabled by an injury, you are left to fend for yourself. And if you try to organize a union, you're likely to lose your job, at best – or, at worst, suffer arrest, jailing, and torture.

Sound like slave labor? These are the conditions faced by the 5,000 workers employed by U.S. corporations in La Romana, [1] one of four “industrial free zones” in the Dominican Republic.

An inside look at how U.S. multinationals are squeezing unheard-of profits out of the super-exploitation of Dominican workers – with the generous backing of the government in Santo Domingo – was provided by Chicago Sun-Times correspondent Michael Flannery in the May issue of American Federationist, the monthly magazine of the AFL-CIO trade-union federation.

The industrial free zones were created by former President Joaquín Balaguer [2] to draw American companies to the Dominican Republic. The advantages to the imperialists are obvious and substantial. Companies operating in the free zones receive a twenty-year exemption from all taxes, as well as freedom from customs duties and currency restrictions. And in a country with a chronic unemployment rate of 24 percent, workers desperate for any kind of job can be made to work for as little as forty-five centavos (US$.34) an hour, under degrading and dehumanizing conditions, and can be speedily fired if they show any inclinations toward militancy – there are always plenty of others to take their place.

The La Romana free zone is owned by Gulf & Western Industries, Inc., a multinational conglomerate with widely diversified holdings, whose projected worldwide income – $4 billion – nearly equals the Dominican gross national product.

Of the 5,000 workers employed in the free zone, some 2,000 work directly for G&W or its subsidiaries. The rest work for the eighteen other companies that lease space in the zone from G&W.

G&W is one of the largest employers in the country. In addition to the free zone, it runs the world’s largest sugar mill, cattle ranches, two plush resorts, and grows sugar cane, citrus, vegetables, and tobacco on the 264,000 acres it owns in the Dominican Republic.

But the country’s inhabitants do not share in this fabulous wealth. Per capita income is about $700 a year. In 1972, it was estimated that only 11 percent of the 5 million Dominicans drink milk, 4 percent eat meat, and 2 percent eat eggs.

The industrial free zone system is designed to keep things this way.

La Romana has the appearance of a “modern slave-labor camp,” according to the labor federation monthly. Government customs agents armed with shotguns and National Police are stationed at the entrances to the free zone, which is surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

The National Confederation of Dominican Workers (CNTD) and the Free Union of Romana Sugar Mill Workers have both attempted to carry out organizing drives in the zone. But the U.S. capitalists were determined to keep unions out of what has been called “one of the most perfect company towns in the western hemisphere.” The Balaguer dictatorship was an ideal instrument for carrying out this policy. [3]

In December 1976, a CNTD organizing committee was formed in La Romana, and a public rally was scheduled. Five days before the rally was to take place, six union supporters were fired from their jobs. Four were jailed immediately and charged with being outside Communist “agitators.”

The meeting was postponed for several days, then went ahead as planned. But when 1,000 workers showed up, they were met by troops of the National Police in full combat gear who dispersed them at the point of automatic weapons.

Several union leaders were arrested and taken to National Police headquarters, where they were “interrogated” by agents of the secret police and accused of being Communists. Police later “escorted” the union leadership out of the province, passing through a series of checkpoints that had been set up on roads leading into La Romana to keep out “undesirables.”

Since taking office on August 16, President Antonio Guzmán Fernández [4] has given no indication that he intends to run things in the free zones any differently than his predecessor. He recently told a meeting of the country’s main trade-union leaders that “enemies of the workers” were trying to use them to obstruct the country’s economic development. “Foreign investors are helping to create jobs for all Dominicans,” Guzmán said.

The AFL-CIO leadership correctly sees the labor practices of U.S. corporations in neocolonial countries like the Dominican Republic as a reflection of their stepped-up drive for profits in the face of increased international competition. And they correctly see it as part of a worldwide trend aimed at forcing a rollback of wages and working conditions in the advanced industrialized countries as well.

But the labor bureaucrats are silent about the role of the U.S. government in supporting and maintaining this exploitation. They neglect to mention that U.S. dollars are going to pay the salaries of the National Police who stand guard outside the factories in the free industrial zones. Nor can slave-labor conditions be eliminated, as the AFL-CIO leadership suggests, by abolishing tax advantages for U.S. multinationals that move their operations overseas, or by setting quotas on imports from low-wage countries. Only the Dominican workers, supported by the labor movement internationally, can force an improvement in their living and working conditions. To do this, they must have the right to organize without the threat of dismissal, arrest, and torture hanging over their heads.


1. A city located in the eastern La Romana province.

2. Joaquín Balaguer (1906-2002) was a right wing, racist ideologue and collaborator of the Trujillo dictatorship. A staunch anti-communist, Balaguer became one of the closest allies of the US during the Cold War.

3. The Balaguer regime lasted twelve years from 1966 to 1978.

4. Silvestre Antonio Guzmán Fernández (1911-1982) was a wealthy politician who in 1978 became the first democratically elected president since the end of the 1965 revolution. His election as president under the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) ticket ended twelve years of authoritarian rule under Joaquín Balaguer. On July 4 1982, President Guzmán committed suicide inside the National Palace.