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U.S. bans sugar from biggest producer in Dominican Republic

The move stemmed from an investigation that found indications of forced labor at Central Romana, and comes as sugar prices are already up 14 percent

A truck carrying sugar cane passes a woman and child outside a church in the Dominican Republic in May 2021. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Just as Americans are whipping up their holiday pies, imports of sugar from the Dominican Republic’s largest sugar producer will be blocked at all United States ports.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday that, effective immediately, sugar and sugar-based products made by Central Romana Corporation will be detained at ports of entry after an investigation by the agency found indications of the use of forced labor in its operations. The investigation found evidence of abusive working and living conditions, withheld wages, excessive overtime 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 Highsmith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade, said in a statement.

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“Central Romana Corporation is very disappointed by the decision by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue a Withhold Release Order regarding our company’s products,” Central Romana wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. “We disagree vehemently with the decision as we do not believe it reflects the facts about our company and the treatment of our employees.”

The company asserts that it has always provided appropriate wages, housing and other benefits.

Sugar prices are already up more than 14 percent from a year ago, according to government data. Before the Central Romana import ban, the U.S. sugar supply had already declined because of lower sugar production and imports, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

That said, most U.S. food companies have already secured their sugar supplies for the year, so baked goods, confections and other sugar-laden holiday treats are unlikely to see immediate price hikes resulting from the ban.

“America’s commercial bakeries have already procured or have contracts to procure sugar for well into 2023, so this stoppage will likely have no effect on the production of holiday baked goods,” said Lee Sanders, a senior vice president of the American Bakers Association. “As we look to the future, however, anything that disrupts a global commodity market could certainly make already high prices even higher.”

The order against Central Romana is the latest action the United States has taken to address allegations of forced labor and other human rights abuses in supply chains of imported goods, and Dominican sugar has long been in regulators’ sights. In September, the U.S. Labor Department identified sugar cane from the Dominican Republic on its list of goods potentially produced by child or forced labor.

“The agency will continue to set a high global standard by aggressively investigating allegations of forced labor in U.S. supply chains and keeping tainted merchandise out of the United States,” said Customs and Border Protection acting commissioner Troy A. Miller.

The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 28 million workers worldwide suffer under conditions of forced labor. Federal statute prohibits the importation of merchandise produced by convict labor, forced labor or indentured labor, and CBP detains shipments of goods suspected of being imported in violation of this statute.

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Central Romana, which exports more than $100 million worth of products to the United States annually, has long faced allegations of subjecting its workers to substandard wages and unsafe conditions. According to a 2021 Post investigation, workers for Central Romana said they earned about $125 a month cutting sugar cane, well below the country’s average monthly salary. The company has denied mistreating workers.

In a written statement to The Post in 2021, Central Romana said: “Like any socially responsible company, we strive to advance each year and continue to invest in all of our processes, including health and industrial safety, labor aspects, environmental compliances and social responsibility programs.”

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