Interview with Dr Max Puig, Minister of Labour of the Dominican Republic

Q: What is your reason for visiting the United Nations in Geneva?
The reason for my being here today in Geneva is to head the Dominican delegation to the Universal Periodic Review exercise in the Human Rights Council. This exercise was made possible by the work of the Inter-Institutional Commission, whose members come from various government ministries, public institutions and civil society, as well as the invaluable contribution of our Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office here in Geneva headed by Ambassador Homero Luis Hern?ndez S?nchez.
The report describes the human rights situation in the Dominican Republic and, now that it has been submitted to all parties, we await their observations and remain open and receptive to their opinions.
Q: How would you describe the human rights situation in your country?
The Dominican Republic is an old nation, founded in 1844 and has a history marked by dictatorships and the lack of respect for basic human rights. The last government of this type ended in 1961, and since then the Dominican Republic has been moving towards democracy. In this process of democracy building, we have made important progress in the area of human rights. The Dominican Republic is one of the founding members of the United Nations and fully adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have signed most of the conventions in the field of human rights. While some have not yet been signed or ratified, we are currently examining them in order to do so as soon as possible.
Concerning the international commitment of the Dominican Republic, it should be noted that we have recently voted into law legislation that takes into account the provisions of these conventions. The new Dominican Constitution, to be launched in the very near future, will include many new measures that were not incorporated earlier.
What is equally important to note is that respect for human rights creates a democratic culture. The reason for this is simple: in order to build a democracy, you must also build a democratic culture so that the population consists of citizens with values. The Dominican Republic continues going in the right direction, not only in protecting human rights but also in developing a culture among the population that respects these rights.
Q: How are you going to create this democratic culture?
There are two fundamental ways to achieve this goal: one is through legislation and the other is through education. On the one hand, what are needed are good laws that guarantee respect for basic human rights and are useful for the education of the population from a human rights standpoint. On the other hand, there must be more participative practice. To this end, the Dominican Republic has set up institutions that are increasingly open, with more involvement on the part of the population. We have voted into law legislation that guarantees people’s access to public information. It is important that the population knows the law and their rights.
Q: A large part of your population is quite poor and, I believe, not well educated? Despite the fact that the Dominican Republic is one of the countries in the Caribbean region with the highest economic growth, it still has a social deficit –– if I may put it this way. Within this “deficit”, there is a small percentage of the population (representing 11%) that unfortunately still does not know how to read and write. This limits both their economic possibilities and the exercise of their rights. This is unfortunately the case when the population does not have access to an adequate level of education.
In 2008, 43% of the population of the Dominican Republic lived below the poverty line according to official figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL).
Like most countries in the world, the Dominican Republic is faced with an important challenge. The economic crisis and the state of the world’s economy have had, and will continue to have, an important impact on the social environment and employment of our citizens. We did not create this crisis but, like everyone else, we are suffering from it. All countries need to adopt measures to avoid the negative effects of this crisis. Recently, the President of the Dominican Republic convened a Summit of National Unity in order to discuss the world economic crisis and to find solutions.
During the first three months of 2009, hundreds of persons representing all aspects of Dominican society –– politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, trade unionists, NGOs –– held discussions where all the issues were put on the table and everyone worked together in order to obtain consensus on what measures needed to be taken in order to tackle the economic crisis. Once consensus was reached, the Government started to take the appropriate action in the economic sector, as well as in the social sector – including an increased social security system – that favoured the poorest sector of the population. In a period of crisis, there are always people who say that we need to economize by reducing social measures, but in fact we have done the opposite. We say that, since there is a crisis, we need to assist the sectors that are hardest hit.
The Dominican Republic has taken these measures in the economic and social fields and despite the economic crisis affecting the whole world; at the end of 2009 we will have achieved an annual growth rate of 2%. The Dominican Republic is one of a small number of countries in Latin America who have succeeded in this way.
From the perspective of human rights, it is better to maintain economic growth and increase the social benefits to the poorest part of the population. In this context, the Dominican Republic responded by calling everyone to sit down together and adopt the necessary actions. As a result, I believe this has enabled us to stabilize the situation in our country.
Q: As the Minister of Labour, how would you describe the situation of workers in your country? Before I answer your question, I would just like to say the following. The Summit of National Unity referred to earlier was organized by individual sectors, and within the social sector we examined health, social security and employment issues where a member of the government was chosen to co-ordinate the discussions. As Minister of Labour, I was selected to coordinate the discussions in this field and this is one of the reasons why I am here to defend the Universal Periodic Review of the Dominican Republic.
This being said, when it comes to the conditions of workers in the Dominican Republic, first of all there is the question of employment. We have a huge informal sector: which comprises 55% of the total workforce. According to the most recent statistics, unemployment in the Dominican Republic stands at 14.9%. The problem is that unemployment is quite high even in the informal sector. Following the world’s economic crisis, unemployment has gone up but not as much as one could have expected due to the measures taken by the Government that made it possible for the workers to exercise their rights. In May 2009, we organized a meeting to analyse work and the right to work. We gathered businessmen, trade unions, workers, etc., and for almost an entire week we discussed the contents of laws regarding work, workers’ rights, etc. These discussions were extremely useful. Employers and workers sat at the same table where very specific problems and issues such as work, women’s participation and youth employment were examined. As you might be aware, unemployment among the young and women is much higher, so we worked in particular on these issues and also on specific economic sectors in the country in order to improve the situation.
Q: During an economic crisis, many companies use the situation to lay people off. Is this also the case in your country? In all regions of the world the majority of people respects the law, but there are always some who do not. They are a minority and do not represent society as a whole. The Dominican Republic has a very strict policy towards employers who does not respect the rules of the game. For instance, since 2001 we have established a new on-going process for social security system. The law states that all employers have to register their employees, but there are still some employers who do not do so. In these cases, we have to be very strict because, if all employers did not respect the rules, we would be unable to construct a social system. This is something we clearly explained to all employers: we want to build a more egalitarian social security system and if you do not play the game it will not work.
Q: Apart from tourism, what other economic activities do you have in the Dominican Republic? For more than a century the economy of the Dominican Republic was based on the export of basic necessities such as sugar, coffee, cacao and bananas. However, for the past thirty years or so, the fundamental structure of the economy has changed. Today the economic backbone of the Dominican Republic is tourism. We also have industrial production for the export industry, but the economy is also strongly dependent on remittances in foreign currencies from Dominicans living abroad. From this point of view, there is a particular situation resulting from triangular migration. We receive immigrants from Haiti, and Dominicans emigrate at approximately 1 million Haitians have immigrated to the Dominican Republic and some 1 million Dominicans immigrate to other countries. Dominicans living abroad send back important sums of money. Recently, the economy has begun to diversify. Alongside tourism, the communication sector has improved and recently we have experienced a new export culture towards the eastern coast of the United States. The Dominican Republic is the world’s largest and most important exporter of organic products, including organic bananas, organic avocados, cacao, etc. There are perhaps more investments required, more expertise, but it is a field where you can earn more. In addition, we are also a significant world exporter of rum, beer, etc. These are the new exports of the Dominican Republic.
Q: There are many complaints about how the Haitians are treated in the Dominican Republic. What do you think about this human rights issue and what can be done to remedy this matter? First of all, I would like to put things into context. Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the only two countries in the world that share one island. There are other islands that are shared but not between two independent countries. It is a special case with a long history. The island measures 75,000 km2 with more than 18 million inhabitants, so there is quite a high population density. There are 9 million people on the western (Haitian) part of the island and another 9 million on the Dominican territory, which is almost twice the size of the Haitian part. In the last years of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Dominican Republic’s economy has made steady progress while the Haitian economy has been stagnating. In the present state of economic development, the Dominican Republic’s economy is six times greater than that of Haiti. Although the Dominican Republic is a developing country, it was better off than Haiti and, as I said earlier, 43% of the population of the Dominican Republic below the poverty line. However, in Haiti the percentage is much higher, affecting more than 80% of the population. Thus, what is happening on the island is what goes on all over the world when people live in a country that is less developed than its neighbour. There are population movements. There are numerous Haitians in the Dominican Republic. With the Dominican Republic itself facing difficulties in providing health, education and other services to its own population, it could not possibly provide these services to another population. As a result, like any other country in the world, the Dominican Republic has developed rules affecting immigration. Living among the 9 million inhabitants of the Dominican Republic are 1 million Haitians, representing quite a high percentage of the population. In addition, the Haitian immigrants come with little or no education and work in unskilled employment. With this constant flow of immigrants, it is very difficult for the Dominican Republic to reduce its own unemployment figures, guarantee full medical services in its hospitals and provide education to its increasing population. It becomes very difficult for the Dominican Republic, as a developing country with its own problems, to fulfil such tasks.
From the point of view of workers and workers’ rights, once somebody has been hired, all their rights have to be respected even if that person is not a legal resident. Take, for instance, the case of a Haitian worker who is working in a factory. As soon as he starts to work, even if he is not a legal resident of the Dominican Republic, the Ministry of Labour protects him as a worker, and he can also benefit from any health facility free of charge in the country. What is the result? With no hospital on the Haitian side of the border, the hospital on the Dominican Republic side serves a long queue of people, resulting in Dominican hospitals serving both sides of the border! However, this is not the real issue. The fundamental goal for us is collaboration between Haiti and the Dominican Republic allowing Haiti to improve its infrastructure and allow its citizens to have access to a better quality of life. We can put it this way: the development of Haiti is in the national interest of the Dominican Republic. If the way of life improves in Haiti, it is better for everyone. The key word here is solidarity, and the policy of the Dominican Republic is to have more and more agreements with the Haitian government. The only way is collaboration.