Tourist Paradises Built Without Rights

Migration in the Construction Sector in Central America and the Caribbean

By Ernest Cañada

In recent years, the area including Southern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean has become one of the world's main tourist destinations. One of the phenomena of 'touristification' is the massive mobilization of workers from different parts of the region for the construction of tourist enclaves. The tourism model - promoted by transnational capital and major business groups in the region - has been characterized by segregation, generating social inequality.

When new centres of tourist development started, like Punta Cana (Bavaro) in the Dominican Republic, Cancun and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, or the coast of Guanacaste in Costa Rica, these areas did not have enough of a labour force for construction. This required bringing in workers from other places. Most of them were peasants from poor areas: Haitians in the Dominican Republic; Nicaraguans in Costa Rica; and Central Americans as well as people from Chiapas in Mexico. These processes of social mobilization have certain common characteristics.

Violations of Workers' Rights

The states have neglected to uphold proper labour standards for this new activity, which benefits major businesses. In this way, the use of foreign migrant labour is systematic, mobilizing employees without prior contracts and, generally, under illegal conditions. This subjects workers to arbitrary treatment and abuse.

Commonly, these workers earn low wages. Due to their weak position in relation to the company, which is caused by multiple factors, they are often fired without the payments or benefits to which they are entitled. Moreover, the police take action against illegal immigration, which keeps workers in a permanent state of insecurity, in addition to the harsh, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions that they are already facing.

Both work-related accidents and health conditions are common in this sector. The rural origin of many of these workers, who are not used to those kinds of activities, or the height of some of the buildings under construction, as well as their precarious living conditions (poor nutrition, inappropriate accommodation, stress), clearly put their lives and health in danger.

Furthermore, when migrant workers arrive at their destination, they discover that there is no accommodation available, so they end up living either at the construction sites or in informal camps with high levels of insecurity, precariousness, overcrowding, and no basic infrastructure. It is also common to find unhealthy new urban areas under these conditions, which are inhabited by men who have migrated without their families. In this social and work environment, it is hard to feel attached to new territories, which leads to elevated levels of alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction, as a way to overcome the situation or avoid reality.

As major hotel chains and real estate developers rely on subcontracting, workers cannot sue or even denounce large corporations. For the construction of a specific project, or even parts of it, it is common to work with several different local companies. This type of business practice divides workers and extricates businesses from responsibility in the event of an accident.

Weak Protection Mechanisms

The state also provides little protection to workers. Specially revealing is the poor job done by these countries' respective ministries of labour. Even when there is political will, the impact of these ministries is minimal in comparison to the interests of large companies. In the same way, the capacity for union organizing in this sector is limited. Hence, the protection and collective defence opportunities are very low, and the protection mechanisms that do exist are relegated to social organizations based in the areas, such as churches, in the case of Caritas and the volunteering group Pastoral Social de Liberia in the capital of the province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica.

All these factors create a landscape characterized by poverty and violations of human rights. The tourism industry relies on this situation, collaborating with the states of the region, to reduce the construction cost of these enclaves. Tourist paradises are built, ultimately, without taking into account the fundamental rights of the workers who made them possible.

Ernest Cañada is the coordinator of the Catalan organisation "Alba Sud - Investigation and Communication for Development" and member of the "Group to Research Sustainability and Territory (GIST)" at the University of the Baleares.

Translated from Spanish by Cinthia Membreño.

(713 words, 61 lines, March 2011, TW 62)

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