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Accompanying Justice
Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Haitian migrants near the border of the Dominican Republic (Peter Balleis/JRS)
Boston, 5 December 2012 – While I was in the Dominican Republic with the Jesuit Refugee Service, a group of young Haitian men approached us about the problems they were having with their employer. They sold yogurt cones on the streets of the capital, Santo Domingo, pushing a heavy machine through traffic all day and, after their boss took his 80 percent cut, were left with almost nothing.

More than the low pay and the physical dangers of the job, what hurt them most were the daily insults and humiliation at the hands of their employer, particularly when, after a day of exploitation, he would accuse them of stealing and force them to empty their pockets in front of him.

The boss, a migrant himself, makes the Haitians work seven days a week. When one vomited blood from exhaustion and asked for a day off to go to the hospital, he was told if he didn't show up to work the next day, he could consider himself fired. Another felt the need to go to Mass, where he could sing hymns in his own language and feel like a child of God.

The two began to organise their co-workers and eventually confronted their boss, forcing him to give each of them one day off per week. Meanwhile, the boss hired an armed thug to intimidate the workers with violent threats, lest they continue making 'trouble'.

Naturally, JRS took the case. It quickly became violent. One of the group's leaders had a gun put to his head and escaped with his life, and another was threatened.

In addition to the follow-up work with the labour court, our routine work also included accompanying the workers who had been threatened back to the warehouse at night to return the frozen yogurt machines and settle their accounts with the boss. When the workers asked, a couple of us would go to the warehouse with them, make ourselves visible, and then wait outside until the workers left. It was a way of ensuring their safety.

Once the labour cases were underway, a clever lawyer taught the boss to pressurise the workers each night into signing a blank form regarding hours and pay, which he would later fill in with lies. One night we received a phone call letting us know that one worker had been beaten by the thug for refusing to sign the document. We met the worker, still in his bloodied uniform, on a street corner and accompanied him to the hospital and police station.

Of course, none of this had been part of our strategic plan for the year, and the case forced us to neglect some of our regular work. Nevertheless, we stuck with it, and after many visits to the district attorney, the worker who had been assaulted finally faced his former boss in court, with his co-workers as witnesses. However, tainted by blatant anti-Haitian discrimination and corruption, the whole process went nowhere, and to make matters worse the men were left without jobs.

We felt miserable. After all those sleepless nights, and with such clear, solid cases, we had failed to make a difference. And yet, the young men we accompanied thanked us sincerely. They told us that when we walked with them, they felt safe, and that when they faced their employer and told the truth in front of a judge, they felt in some sense their dignity as humans had been recognised, even if their rights were violated.

If nothing else, if our accompaniment had given them that, it had been worthwhile.

Emilio Travieso SJ, JRS worker