The Dominican Republic is a representative constitutional democracy. In 2016 Danilo Medina of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) was re-elected president for a second four-year term. Impartial outside observers assessed the election as generally free and orderly.
The National Police and the Tourist Police maintain internal security. They report to the Minister of Interior and Police and through him to the president. The Airport Security Authority, Port Security Authority, and Border Security Corps have some domestic security responsibilities and report to the Ministry of Armed Forces and through that ministry to the president. The National Drug Control Directorate, which has personnel from both the police and the armed forces, reports directly to the president. The National Department of Intelligence reports directly to the president. Both the National Drug Control Directorate and the National Department of Intelligence have significant domestic security responsibilities. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; torture by police and other government agents; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; criminal libel for individual journalists; serious government corruption; police violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and forced and child labor.
The government took some steps to punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but there were widespread reports of official impunity and corruption, especially among senior officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Media expressed a wide variety of views, but the concentration of media ownership, weaknesses in the judiciary, and political influence limited the media’s independence.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals and groups were generally able to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, although there were several incidents in which authorities intimidated members of the press. In September a television news program hosted by a well known journalist was canceled two days after presenting an investigative report alleging that the attorney general’s sister received no-bid government contracts worth 750 million pesos ($15 million), positioning her as the sole supplier of asphalt products to the government. The program demonstrated that at the time the contracts were signed, the sister was drawing a salary as an employee of the Ministry of Public Works. The journalist alleged his program was canceled after the attorney general called the station owner and threatened legal action. On September 30, the journalists’ association held a press conference denouncing political interference to silence reporting on corruption.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists and other persons who worked in media were occasionally harassed or physically attacked. Some media outlets reported that journalists, specifically in rural areas, received threats for investigating or denouncing criminal groups or official corruption. In October a local television commentator in Monte Plata Province reported he received threats due to his coverage critical of local politicians’ connections with narcotics traffickers. The Inter American Press Association reported journalists suffered violent attacks from military and police security details of government officials, particularly while covering civil-society-led protests.
Some media outlets chose to omit the bylines of journalists reporting on drug trafficking and other security matters to protect the individual journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution provides for protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and includes a “conscience clause” allowing journalists to refuse reporting assignments. Journalists practiced self-censorship, particularly when coverage could adversely affect the economic or political interests of media owners. Observers suggested the government influenced the press through advertising contracts. A prominent journalist who hosted a highly rated news and commentary television show stated that her exit from traditional media was one example of the government’s influence on media outlets. She highlighted that the government spent close to 12.5 million pesos ($250,000 daily) in advertisements.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation and insult, with harsher punishment for offenses committed against public or state figures than for offenses against private individuals. The Dominican College of Journalists reported that journalists were sued by politicians, government officials, and the private sector to pressure them to stop reporting. The law penalizes libel for statements concerning the private lives of certain public figures, including government officials and foreign heads of state.
In July the Constitutional Tribunal annulled an article in the electoral law that set prison sentences of three to 10 years for defamatory and libelous messages and for false campaigns published through media that damage the honor and privacy of political candidates. The tribunal ruled the article violated the right to freedom of speech established in the constitution. The tribunal also declared unconstitutional a paragraph in the law that penalized the publication of negative messages on social media that damage the public image of candidates.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions.
In-country Movement: Civil society representatives reported that citizens of Haitian descent, those perceived to be a Haitian, and Haitian migrants faced obstacles while traveling within the country. NGOs reported that security forces at times asked travelers to show immigration and citizenship documents at road checkpoints throughout the country. Citizens of Haitian descent and migrants without valid identity documents reported fear of swift deportation when traveling within the country, especially near the border with Haiti (see also section 1.d.).
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated in a limited manner with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Government officials and NGOs estimated between 40,000 and 100,000 Venezuelans lived in the country. In December the government instituted a regulation requiring Venezuelans to apply for a tourist visa before entry into the country. Previously, Venezuelans needed only a valid passport and could receive a tourist visa at the point of entry. Many Venezuelans resident in the country entered legally before the new regulation and stayed longer than the three-month allowance.
The government did not issue guidelines to facilitate the regularization of status for Venezuelans living in the country. The inability to apply for in-country adjustment of status hindered Venezuelans’ access to basic services and increased their vulnerability to labor exploitation and trafficking. Venezuelan immigrant associations, with the support of the IOM, coordinated with Dominican government entities to provide public-health and essential legal services for Venezuelan immigrants.
Refoulement: Although the constitution prohibits administrative detention and the law establishes that asylum seekers should not be detained under any circumstance, there were reports of persons potentially in need of international protection being denied admission at the point of entry and subsequently being deported to their countries of origin without being granted access to the asylum process (see also section 1.d.).
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. While the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, it did not effectively implement it. The government recognized and issued identity documents to very few refugees during the past few years. The government did not respond to requests for the current number of asylum seekers.
The National Office of Refugees in the Migration Directorate of the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) is an interministerial body responsible for adjudicating asylum claims. The law requires individuals to apply for asylum within 15 days of arrival in the country. If an asylum seeker is in the country for more than 15 days and does not apply for asylum, the individual permanently loses the right to apply for asylum. The law also rejects any asylum application from an individual who was in, or who proceeds from, a foreign country where the individual could have sought asylum. Thus, the government makes inadmissibility determinations administratively before an asylum interview or evaluation by CONARE.
According to refugee NGOs, there was no information posted at ports of entry to provide notice of the right to seek asylum, or of the timeline and process for doing so. Furthermore, NGOs reported that immigration officials did not appear to understand how to handle asylum cases consistent with the country’s international commitments. By law the government must give due process to asylum seekers. Persons expressing a fear of return to their country of nationality or habitual residence should be allowed to apply for asylum under the proper procedures. Nonetheless, there was generally neither judicial review of deportation orders nor any third-party review of “credible fear” determinations.
UN officials reported asylum seekers were not properly notified of inadmissibility decisions. CONARE did not provide rejected asylum seekers with details of the grounds for the rejection of their asylum application or with information on the appeal process. Rejected applicants received a letter saying they had 30 days to leave the country voluntarily. Government policy is that from the time they receive the notice of denial, rejected asylum seekers have seven days to file an appeal. The letter providing the notice of denial does not mention this right of appeal.
UN officials said a lack of due process in migration procedures resulted in arbitrary detention of persons of concern with no administrative or judicial review (see also section 1.d.). As a result, asylum seekers and refugees in the country were at risk of refoulement and prolonged detention.
During the year government authorities participated in UNHCR-sponsored training designed to ensure that asylum procedures are fair, efficient, and gender-sensitive. Reports of discriminatory practices against female asylum seekers and refugees continued, however. The country failed to implement a gender-sensitive identification system for female asylum seekers and refugees, including potential victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Freedom of Movement: Persons claiming asylum often waited months to receive a certificate as an asylum seeker and to be registered in the government database. The certificate must be renewed every 30 days in the national office in Santo Domingo, forcing asylum seekers who live outside Santo Domingo to return to the capital monthly or lose their claim to asylum. Asylum seekers with pending cases only had this certificate, or nothing at all, to present to avoid deportation. This restricted their freedom of movement. In cases where approved asylum seekers were detained for lack of documentation, refugee organizations were able to advocate for their release.
Some refugees recognized by CONARE were either issued travel documents that were not accepted in visa application processes, or they were not issued travel documents at all.
Employment: The government prohibited asylum seekers with pending cases from working. This situation was complicated by the long, sometimes indefinite waiting periods for pending asylum cases to be resolved. Lack of documentation also made it difficult for refugees to find employment. Employment was, nonetheless, a requirement for the government to renew refugees’ temporary residency cards.
Access to Basic Services: Approved refugees have the same rights and responsibilities as legal migrants with temporary residence permits. Approved refugees have the right to access education, employment, health care, and other social services. Nonetheless, refugee organizations reported that problems remained. Only those refugees able to afford health insurance were able to access adequate health care. Refugees reported their government-issued identification numbers were sometimes not recognized, and thus they could not open a bank account or enter service contracts for basic utilities. Refugees had to rely on friends or family for such services.
Temporary Protection: The law enables undocumented migrants in the country to apply for temporary legal residency. Although the exact number of undocumented migrants was unknown, the law granted temporary residency status to more than 260,000 applicants (97 percent of whom were Haitian). As of August 2018, 196,000 persons renewed temporary status, which was due to expire in 2020. Civil society organizations expressed concern that many plan participants lacked passports, which could hinder their ability to renew their status.
No temporary residence documents were granted to asylum seekers; those found to be admissible to the process were issued a certificate that provided them with protection from deportation but did not confer other rights. This certificate often took months to be delivered to asylum seekers. Due in part to this delay, both refugees and asylum seekers lived on the margins of the migration system. Foreigners often were asked to present legal migration documents to obtain legal assistance or access the judicial system; therefore, many refugees and asylum seekers were unable to access legal help for situations they faced under criminal, labor, family, or civil law.
Refugees recognized by CONARE underwent annual re-evaluation of their need for international protection, a procedure counter to international standards. Refugees were issued one-year temporary residence permits that could not be converted to a permanent residence permit.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage. The constitution prohibits active-duty police and military personnel from voting or participating in partisan political activities.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The attorney general investigated allegedly corrupt officials.
NGOs noted the greatest hindrance to effective investigations was a lack of political will to prosecute individuals accused of corruption, particularly well connected individuals or high-level politicians. Government corruption remained a serious problem and a public grievance.
Corruption: In September the Supreme Court began a trial against six of the 14 defendants indicted in 2017 for alleged links to $92 million in bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to obtain public works contracts. The six defendants included a senator, a lower house representative, a former senator, and a former minister of public works. Civil society welcomed the trial as a step forward in the fight against corruption, but activists highlighted what they perceived as a lack of political will thoroughly to investigate the case, which involved the country’s political and economic elites.
In June an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report revealed that in addition to the publicly reported $92 million in bribes, Odebrecht distributed another $39.5 million in inducements during the construction of the Punta Catalina coal-fired power plant. After this report was made public, the Attorney General’s Office questioned financial consultants involved in the plant’s tendering process but did not file any additional charges. The attorney general and a government-appointed commission previously dismissed allegations of irregularity in the plant’s contracting process.
NGOs criticized the widespread practice of awarding government positions as political patronage. They alleged many civil servants received a government salary without performing any work. Some small municipalities had more employees on the payroll than their physical offices could accommodate.
NGOs and individual citizens regularly reported acts of corruption by various law enforcement officials, including police officers, immigration officials, and prison officials. The government on occasion used nonjudicial punishments for corruption, including dismissal or transfer of military personnel, police officers, judges, and other minor officials. Widespread acceptance and tolerance of petty corruption, however, hampered anticorruption efforts.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president, vice president, members of congress, some agency heads, and some other officials, including tax and customs duty collectors, to declare their personal property within 30 days of being hired, elected, or re-elected as well as when they end their responsibilities. These declarations are made public. The constitution further requires public officials to declare the provenance of their property. The Chamber of Accounts is responsible for receiving and reviewing these declarations. Many public officials did not comply. NGOs questioned the veracity of the declarations, as amounts often fluctuated significantly from year to year, and total declared assets often appeared unrealistically low.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international organizations generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views, human rights groups that advocated for the rights of Haitians and persons of Haitian descent faced occasional government obstruction.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes the position of human rights ombudsman. The ombudsman’s functions are to safeguard human rights and protect collective interests. There is also a human rights commission, chaired by the minister of foreign affairs and the attorney general. The Attorney General’s Office has its own human rights division.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers, with the exception of the military and police, to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively; however, it places several restrictions on these rights. For example, a requirement, considered excessive by the ILO, restricts trade union rights by requiring unions to represent 51 percent of the workers in an enterprise in order to bargain collectively. In addition the law prohibits strikes until mandatory mediation requirements have been met. Formal requirements for a strike to be legal also include the support of an absolute majority of all company workers for the strike, written notification to the Ministry of Labor, and a 10-day waiting period following notification before the strike can proceed. Government workers and essential public service personnel may not strike. The government considers teachers as essential, as are public service workers in communications, water supply, energy supply, hospitals, and pharmacies.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and forbids employers from dismissing an employee for participating in union activities, including being on a committee seeking to form a union. Although the Ministry of Labor must register unions for the unions to be legal, the law provides for automatic recognition of a union if the ministry does not act on an application within 30 days. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without government interference. Public-sector workers may form associations registered through the Office of Public Administration. The law requires that 40 percent of employees of a government entity agree to join for the association to be formed. According to the Ministry of Labor, the law applies to all workers, including foreign workers, those working as domestic workers, workers without legal documentation, and workers in the free-trade zones (FTZs).
The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Enforcement and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The process for addressing labor violations through criminal courts can take years, leaving workers with limited protection in the meantime. There were reports of intimidation, threats, and blackmail by employers to prevent union activity. Some unions required members to provide identity documents to participate in the union despite the fact that the labor code protects all workers regardless of their legal status.
Labor NGOs reported companies resisted collective negotiating practices and union activities. Companies reportedly fired workers for union activity and blacklisted trade unionists, among other antiunion practices. Workers reported they believed they had to sign documents pledging to abstain from participating in union activities. Companies also created and supported “yellow” or company-backed unions to counter free and democratic unions. Formal strikes occurred but were not common.
Some companies used short-term contracts and subcontracting, which made union organizing and collective bargaining more difficult. Few companies had collective bargaining pacts, partly because companies created obstacles to union formation and could afford to go through lengthy judicial processes that independent unions could not afford.
Unions in the FTZs, which are subject to the same labor laws as all other workers, reported that their members hesitated to discuss union activity at work due to fear of losing their jobs. Unions accused some FTZ companies of dismissing workers who attempted to organize unions.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law prescribes imprisonment and fines for persons convicted of engaging in forced labor. Such penalties were sufficiently stringent to deter violations.
The government reported it received no forced labor complaints during the year but there were reports of forced labor of adults and children in construction, agriculture, and services.
The law applies equally to exploitation of migrant workers, but Haitian workers’ lack of documentation and uncertain legal status in the country made them more vulnerable to forced labor. NGOs reported many irregular Haitian laborers and citizens of Haitian descent did not exercise their rights due to fear of being fired or deported.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits employment of children younger than age 14 and places restrictions on the employment of children younger than age 16, limiting their working hours to six hours per day. For persons younger than age 18, the law limits night work and prohibits employment in dangerous work such as work involving hazardous substances, heavy or dangerous machinery, and carrying heavy loads. The law provides penalties for child labor violations, including fines and prison sentences. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The Ministry of Labor, in coordination with the National Council for Children and Adolescents, the National Police, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Specialized Corps for Tourist Safety Local Vigilance Committees, is responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and they did effectively enforce the law. The government has established mechanisms to coordinate its efforts on child labor.
The porous border with Haiti allowed some Haitian children to be trafficked into the country, where they were forced into commercial sexual exploitation or forced to work in agriculture, often alongside their parents, domestic work, street vending, or begging (see also section 6).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution creates a right of equality and nondiscrimination, regardless of sex, skin color, age, disability, nationality, family ties, language, religion, political opinion or philosophy, and social or personal condition. The law prohibits discrimination, exclusion, or preference in employment, but there is no law against discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The government did not effectively enforce the law against discrimination in employment. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to HIV/AIDS-positive persons; and against persons with disabilities, persons of darker skin color, those of Haitian nationality, and women (see section 6). In March the IACHR annual report noted with concern the absence of concrete policies targeting the reduction of discrimination in the workplace.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law provides for a minimum wage that varies depending on the size of the enterprise and type of labor. As of October the minimum wage for all sectors, except sugar cane harvesters, was above the official poverty line; however, a study by the Juan Bosch Foundation found that only one-half of the minimum wage rates were high enough for a worker to afford the minimum family budget. The government estimated 23 percent of the population was living in poverty.
The law establishes a standard workweek of 44 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day on weekdays, and four hours on Saturdays before noon. Agricultural workers are exempt from this limit, however, and may be required to work up to 10 hours each workday without premium compensation. The law stipulates all workers are entitled to 36 hours of uninterrupted rest each week. Although the law provides for paid annual holidays and premium pay for overtime, enforcement was ineffective. The law prohibits excessive or compulsory overtime and states that employees may work a maximum of 80 hours of overtime over the course of three months.
The labor code covers different sectors separately. For example, the section covering domestic workers establishes lower standards for hours of work, rest, annual leave, sick leave, and remuneration, and it does not provide for notice or severance payments. Domestic workers are entitled to two weeks’ paid vacation after one year of continuous work as well as a Christmas bonus equal to one month’s wage. The labor code also covers workers in the FTZs, but they are not entitled to bonus payments.
The law applies to both the formal and informal sectors, but it was seldom enforced in the informal sector. Workers in the informal economy faced more precarious working conditions than formal workers.
The Ministry of Labor sets workplace safety and health regulations that are appropriate for the main industries. By regulation employers are obligated to provide for the safety and health of employees in all aspects related to the job. By law employees may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but they may face less severe reprisal.
Authorities conducted inspections but did not adequately enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and workplace health and safety standards. Penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations. The Public Ministry is responsible for pursuing and applying penalties for labor violations uncovered by labor inspectors; it infrequently applied penalties in practice. During the year the Ministry of Labor increased its inspector workforce by 30 percent from 2018, but the number of labor inspectors remained insufficient.
Mandatory overtime was a common practice in factories, enforced through loss of pay or employment for those who refused. The Dominican Federation of Free Trade Zone Workers reported that some companies in the textile industry set up “four-by-four” work schedules, under which employees worked 12-hour shifts for four days. In a few cases employees working the four-by-four schedules were not paid overtime for hours worked in excess of maximum work hours allowed under the law.
Conditions for agricultural workers were poor. Many workers worked long hours, often 12 hours per day and seven days per week, and suffered from hazardous working conditions, including exposure to pesticides, long periods in the sun, limited access to potable water, and sharp and heavy tools. Some workers reported they were not paid the legally mandated minimum wage.
Industrial accidents caused injury and death to workers, but information on the number of accidents was unavailable.