“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist. Dom Helder Camara
Since the birth of the cane sugar industry, manual harvesting has remained the central pillar of the sector in many parts of the world. With the exception of Brazil, which some ten years ago, made a radical shift to mechanize cane harvesting, no other industry has followed suit with similar zeal. A variety of local circumstances inform the persistence of manual harvesting, namely: steep terrain, making it difficult to introduce mechanization (e.g. China); supporting rural development through employment (e.g. Philippines, Guatemala); and simply exploiting the relatively cheap labour against costly investment in mechanization. The abiding fact is that the lot of cane cutters are in the bottom rung of the employment market, with limited skills, expertise, knowledge and education condemning them to an arduous job from which they can barely eke out a living. As such, they are vulnerable to exploitation – not aware of their rights (from literacy deficit), let alone knowing how to exploit them but rather resigning to the fact that the alternative is no work.
The tragedy is that in more than a few instances those employing their services have sought to treat them inhumanely – from utter disregard for common decency to seeing them as a disposable commodity. The NGO La Isla1 Foundation has been campaigning on the issue of health and welfare of cane cutters not only in Central America. According to La Isla, over the past 15 years, some 20,000 cane cutters have lost their lives through chronic kidney disease (CKD). In the west, CKD impacts mainly obese people. The main drivers for CKD amongst the cane cutters are heat stress, dehydration and muscle loss.
A recent investigative report by The HinduBusinessLine2 notes that women who want to work as cane cutters in the Beed district of Maharashtra have to have a hysterectomy to secure employment because the contractors are unwilling to hire women who menstruate. Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. “The mukadam (contractor) is keen to have women without wombs in his group of cane cutters. After a hysterectomy, there is no chance of menstrual periods. So, there is no question of taking a break during cane cutting. We cannot afford to lose even a rupee,” disclosed Satyabhama, a cane-cutter. Dada Patil, a contractor, confirmed that “We have a target to complete in a limited timeframe and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting”.
What is incredulous is that cane cutters, marginalised and voiceless as they are, have few in the industry and politics who hear their silent cry. They are simply out of the radar of the likes of the influential intergovernmental International Sugar Organisation, the industry group the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers and Bonsucro who should have developed guidelines for humane work practices for the community of cane cutters. It’s a damning shame that inhumanity continues to prevail in certain sections of the cane world.
One glimmering light in all this is the support and treatment of cane cutters in Guatemala. I had the privilege of seeing at first hand the sugar company La Union’s operations in late January of this year. Through the excellent support and oversight from the Guatemala Sugar Association (ASAZGUA), all the 11 sugar companies operating in the country follow the same level of support for the manual harvesters. With the retention rate 90%, it is apparent that this is a supreme vote of confidence by the cane cutters on the condition of their work, food and living quarters afforded to them. Recruits are in the age range 19-60, medically tested and go through an induction programme where they are briefed on a range of issues, including benefits, code of ethics, and security. They enjoy rest every 90 minutes in the shade during harvesting when they get to re-hydrate over a 20-minute break. This is strictly implemented by the management. At lunch time, one hour long, freshly cooked food, nutritionally well balanced, is brought to them by trucks in sealed, temperature-controlled containers. In the evening, food is served in a large dining hall (near their living quarters). I had the privilege of eating the same nutritious food they were served as well as sharing a conversation with few of the cane cutters during dinner. A nutritionist develops the menu which is posted on a board for all to see. An industrial kitchen, with high hygienic standard and food safety, is supported by a team of cooks. La Union spends US$1 million annually on subsidising food for the cutters. Further, a nurse is available on call for the cutters at their base for a good part of the evening.
The Guatemalan sugar industry has certainly raised a bar on corporate social responsibility pertaining to the cane cutters employed. Their template is certainly one that the rest of the global cane sector employing manual harvesting must seek to emulate. One hopes that their model catches fire rapidly globally, and the lot of cane cutters come to enjoy the humane treatment in the workplace most of us take for granted.