Despite leaps and bounds for the Dominican Republic’s economy, about 40% of Dominicans are living under the poverty line. In fact, those living below the poverty line has actually increased in recent years — in 2000 it was 32% of the population living in poverty. The gains for the Dominican Republic’s economy have been localized to the richest 10% of the population, who take home over 40% of the national income. Frighteningly low wages, unclear and unbalanced regulations, improper enforcement of labor and immigration laws, poorly distributed infrastructure gains and uneven distribution of jobs across industries has resulted in glaringly large gaps between the haves and the have nots across the tiny country of the Dominican Republic.
The monthly minimum wage in the Dominican Republic varies based on industry and then again on the size of the business. On the high end, large companies must pay a minimum of RD$15,400 ($315USD), and on the low end for domestic or farm workers RD$13,260 ($270USD). However, with a large undocumented immigrant population from Haiti (thought by the US State Department to be around 1.2 million Haitians) and illegal child workers, the minimum wages are often skirted or outright ignored. The informal economy of street vendors and day laborers is fraught with safety violations and little to no enforceable regulation. With no legal recourse, the vulnerable populations continue to live at the edges of society. As unemployment rates have varied widely in recent years (from 5-15%) workers are reticent to rock the boat for fear of being the first to be fired when things inevitably go south.
Child labor, particularly in the agricultural sector, remains a huge issue in the Dominican Republic. Estimates say only 40% of children finish primary school in the Dominican Republic, with literacy rates hovering around 85%. This factor is exacerbated by the fact that mothers and fathers, despite perhaps making a legal minimum wage, are unable to support their families with the basic necessities. The figures are even worse for those living outside urban areas: the rural poverty rate is about three times as high as the urban poverty rate.
The poverty and lack of promising employment opportunities has shocking consequences for many across the nation. Parents who cannot bring home a living wage to support their children are often forced to make unappetising decisions regarding the future of their daughters. UNICEF reports that nearly 10% of girls are compelled into marriage before they are 15 years of age and 40% before they are 18: this is one of the worst child marriage rates in the world. 75% of women with only a primary education or less marry before 18, whereas only 28% of women with a secondary education will marry before they are legally an adult.
There are now several ethical garment factories springing up across the Dominican Republic, and they are showing promising results by paying their workers living wages. For the first time workers are able to access formal credit and lending and are able to dream of futures for themselves and their children.