Imagining Miguel.  Helping Miguel.

Imagine there’s a man named Miguel.  Miguel was born in Haiti but works today on a sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic.  The plantation is owned by a U.S. corporation. The corporation pays Miguel $2 a day to harvest sugar during the harvesting season – if he meets his quota.  They don’t allow him to grow his own food, but allow him to buy his food from the plantation store.  He is allow to stay in a 10×8’ “house” owned by the corporation or the government.  He sleeps outside so his wife and children can sleep inside.

Miguel has been working on the plantation long enough to have witnessed the milling component of the sugar-making process get moved from the Dominican Republic to China.  He fears that he is as expendable as the mill workers were.  His family is uneducated, lacking the funds to pay for school uniforms and fees.  His youngest child is sick – eats and eats but can’t keep weight on.  Some days Miguel picks through trash at the dump to find food and clothes for his family.  He needs better pay but lacks the skills to get a better job.  And besides, leaving the plantation means leaving his home and some say risking death at the hands of his employer, so fear keeps his hands on the machete and his feet in the fields.

Some would call this unjust.  Because the U.S. corporation serving as Miguel’s boss makes enough money from their product to pay him a better wage, provide him with health care, and educate his children – they can afford to treat him better and as a human being he deserves as much.

Some would call this benevolent.  Because without the U.S. corporation Miguel would be starving in Haiti, homeless and wageless, or dead.

My inbox has been hit harder by my recent posts about the sugar business and the dump in the Dominican Republic than anything I’ve written before.  You are compassionate people.  You’re ready to leap into action, to do something, anything, to help people like the fictitious Miguel.  And you’ve been writing to ask me what it is I think we should do.

We could buy stock in the sugar company, show up at the next shareholder’s meeting and demand better treatment of Miguel and his family.

We could write and call our Congressmen, demanding they hold U.S. corporations to the same ethical standards when operating abroad that they’re held to at home.

We could start a fund to offer small business loans to people like Miguel or to literally purchase the workers from the corporations.

There’s a lot we could do.  I don’t know enough yet to know what’s best.  I have reservations about each of these proposed solutions right now though.  For now I won’t be asking my government to do anything for Miguel.  From what I know so far, our government subsidizes Miguel’s employer, listens to lobbyists from the sugar industry as well, and does not hold it accountable for it’s treatment of workers.  And unless I have more money than Miguel’s boss’s lobbyists, that route, I’m guessing, will likely be fruitless.

For now I will not be asking the sugar company to change its ways either.  For similar reasons.  What they’re doing, while unethical, is not illegal and it’s very profitable, so why would they listen to me, or a million people like me when there are millions more continuing to buy sugar and two governments supporting their business practices?  For now I won’t be giving Miguel money, because Miguel isn’t free to leave the plantation or use his money to start a business on the plantation.  For now I won’t be purchasing Miguel from the corporation (as if that’s possible) because another Haitian will be brought in to take his place, and another after that.

For now, all I’m doing is learning about the complex situation and continuing to support Compassion’s work inside the plantation I visited.  I truly believe that educating, healing, feeding, training, mentoring, and loving Miguel’s kids both lightens Miguel’s load and ensures that the next generation will have more job opportunities than Miguel has – they will be free.  Compassion’s work in Haiti will hopefully, slowly, over many generations perhaps, lift a sizable number of Haitians out of the desperate circumstances that put Miguel to work on the plantation in the first place. Supporting Compassion is surely not the only thing we can do, and it’s certainly not the quick direct solution I want, but it’s something.  And I need to do something.

Learn with me about the sugar business.  Teach me what you learn.  And do something for Miguel now.