WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would block shipments of sugar from Central Romana Corporation, a Dominican Republic company that produces sugar sold in the United States under the Domino brand and that has long faced allegations of subjecting its workers to poor labor conditions.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued what is known as a withhold release order against the company “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor in its operations,” including abusive working and living conditions, excessive overtime, withheld wages and other violations.
“Manufacturers like Central Romana, who fail to abide by our laws, will face consequences as we root out these inhumane practices from U.S. supply chains,” AnnMarie R. Highsmith, the executive assistant commissioner of the agency’s Office of Trade, said in a statement.
Central Romana responded that it was “very disappointed” by the decision and that it had been investing significantly for years to improve the living conditions of its employees.
“We disagree vehemently with the decision as we do not believe it reflects the facts about our company and the treatment of our employees,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
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Central Romana, which is the largest landholder and employer in the Dominican Republic, exports more than 200 million pounds of sugar to the United States each year. It is owned partly by the Fanjul family, an influential force in U.S. politics for decades as key donors to both Republicans and Democrats.
The measures have been the subject of an intense debate on Capitol Hill, where profits from the sugar industry are funneled into generous campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The United States is the most important market for Dominican sugar, and the move could have a crippling effect on Central Romana, which alone produces roughly 59 percent of the Dominican Republic’s sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It could also cause significant disruptions to U.S. sugar imports in the near term, though economists said the impact on sugar prices, which are heavily influenced by regulation, remained to be seen. Those regulations include price supports that keep U.S. sugar prices far above those on world markets, as well as preferential tariff rates for sugar imported from the Dominican Republic.
Charity Ryerson, the executive director at Corporate Accountability Lab, a Chicago-based human rights organization, said the restrictions would be a powerful impetus for Central Romana to improve conditions for its workers.
“Central Romana has been on notice for years but has failed to comply with even the most basic of labor and human rights standards in their operation,” she said. “From this moment forward, we have a really significant opportunity for C.B.P., for Central Romana and civil society to work together to ensure that workers are free, they’re treated fairly and that forced labor never happens on these farms again.”
The Dominican sugar industry has been the subject of scrutiny for decades for its poor labor practices. Media reports and human rights groups have said Central Romana exerts tremendous power over its workers, many of whom are Haitian migrants and some of whom lack citizenship.
Many workers live in dilapidated housing without running water and electricity, according to civil society groups. The company has also been accused of forcibly evicting families from their homes in the Dominican Republic, and employing a force of masked and armed guards that intimidate workers.
Central Romana has publicly defended its practices and has said it offers among the best working conditions in the industry. A congressional delegation that visited the Dominican Republic and met with workers this summer said the country had made progress toward addressing some of the worst abuses, including child labor and human trafficking.
But the delegation still found evidence that forced labor was persisting on the sugar cane farms. Sugar cane cutters faced “arduous working and living conditions” and “a culture of fear appears to permeate the industry,” Representatives Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Dan Kildee of Michigan, both Democrats, said in a statement.
Members of the Fanjul family, Cuban exiles who started sugar cane farms in Florida and acquired the Dominican Republic company in the 1980s, have been a powerful force in American politics for decades, known for relationships with the Bush family, the Clintons and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, among others.
They are part owners of American Sugar Refining, the world’s largest sugar refinery, which processes sugar from the Dominican Republic at its U.S. facilities and sells to companies including Hershey.