Words by Joseph Moore
Photos by Shelby Wolfe
When we arrived, we were led down a long concrete corridor. Crude doors fashioned from planks of old wood lined both sides of the hallway, barely concealing the small, squalid one-room apartments within. At the end of the corridor an opening brought us into a rectangular courtyard enclosed by tall concrete walls adorned with rusted razor wire. The space was empty save for a few plastic chairs and a washbasin fixed to the wall.
On the other side of the wall, brightly colored parakeets fluttered and chirped inside a makeshift cage. A blue, low-slung tarp shielded a portion of the courtyard from the hot, mid-morning Dominican sun. We arranged the chairs underneath the tarp and fixed the camera to the tripod. Shelby miked-up Isa while I gathered my notes and instructed the onlookers to remain quiet while the camera was recording. Hanoi translated my words into rapid Spanish. I began the interview.
“My name is Isa. I’m 29 years old. I work at Johene and I manufacture bags.”
After the second question I could tell that this was going to be a difficult interview. Isa was soft-spoken, unsure. She frequently glanced at the ground. Her answers were succinct and emotionless. I struggled to extract details from her. She had experienced verbal abuse by managers at the Johene factory – once a manager called her a “cocksucker” – but had never seen or experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse. I was surprised. My research and conversations with female garment workers at Altagracia informed me that sexual abuse is a frequent occurrence in Dominican Free Trade Zone factories. And Johene, they say, is apparently one of the worst.
Isa touched on the difficulties of living on less than $1 an hour in a country where a gallon of gas costs $6 and a loaf of bread $3, but it was challenging to get her to describe her situation in detail, with anecdotes to illustrate. When I learned she was not part of the union organizing efforts at Johene, I wondered to myself why we were even interviewing her. I could barely conceal my disappointment. I asked her a few more questions, prodding her to expound on what it’s like being a single mother with two children working 50 hours a week in a Dominican garment factory, but she would not deliver.
I wrapped up the interview after 20 minutes, frustrated that we’d wasted battery life and memory space for very little material.
The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. Stories of verbal abuse and the occasional slap or arm-grab, but nothing extreme and nothing sexual. No sexual harassment? Even Nangely, the Secretary of Women’s Affairs for the union at TOS Dominicana, a factory the makes garments for Haines and Fruit of the Loom, reported no sexual harassment. Had I been misled? Were my previous sources inaccurate or exaggerated?
Our bus weaved in and out of cars on the highway, the lush mountain landscape zipping by in a sun-washed blur. The ride home from Bonao was a time for reflection. I expressed my frustration to Hanoi. “You know,” he said, “I don’t think those women know what ‘sexual harassment’ is.”
He explained that the sexual mistreatment of women is so prevalent in machismo-driven Dominican society that it often goes unnoticed and unremarked, even by the victims. I asked him what these women interpret “sexual harassment” to mean.
Sitting back in my seat, I felt the full weight of Hanoi’s revelation. I would have to change my approach to these interviews.