The bitter consequences of poor working conditions in the Central American sugarcane industry
Key recommandations for sugarcane buyers, producers and governments
Sugarcane plays an important role in Central American economies. The commodity and its by-products (such as molasses) are exported for the production of consumer goods all over the world. Sugarcane – in addition to beet sugar – is the basis of confectionary sugar, as well as many sweets, sodas and alcoholic drinks. An example of this is the rum industry - as rum is an iconic product for the region and there are clear links between the sugar mills in the region and at least two important international spirits companies: Bacardi and Diageo.
What is at stake?
Workers in the Central American sugarcane industry are suffering from a lack of decent working conditions -including a complete lack of Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining- and many of them are consequently contracting the devastating Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT). Research institutes are linking the causes of the disease to occupational factors, including – but not limited to – long working days, few (shade) breaks, strenuous labour and insufficient access to water. Field research by CNV Internationaal in Guatemala and Honduras has shown that the working conditions for sugarcane workers in these countries are not up to par with international standards, also leading to an increased risk of CKDnT.
What needs to change?
In order to ensure that decent working conditions are assured and the risk factors for CKDnT are eradicated from the labour practices in the sugarcane industry, CNV Internationaal calls upon companies to allow trade unions in order to negociate better working conditions. Ultimately, this should be enacted by local producers (ingenios) in the sugarcane-producing countries. However, at the moment not all these ingenios are willing to take responsibility. CNV Internationaal also calls upon the buyers further along the sugar- cane supply chain, like Bacardi and Diageo, to take an active role together with trade unions to improve working conditions in their supply chains. They can make a major difference by ensuring decent working conditions through their sourcing policies and practices. CNV Internationaal also calls upon the governments, who should enforce that ingenios abide by labour laws and regulations.
Key recommendations for sugarcane buyers and producers
Have in place a global sugarcane supplier code of conduct (buyers) or health and safety standards (producers) that apply to all supplier contracts which include:
- All applicable domestic and international laws and standards relevant to the issue including, but not limited to, the ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (87), the Principles of the Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively (98); and the Right to a Safe and Healthy Work Environment (155); and the Plantation Convention (nº 110), part 9, article 54 on the right to organise and collective bargaining;
- A clear statement that all rights and requirements of the code / standards apply equally to all workers at the ingenios regardless of whether they are part/full-time, temporary/permanent workers and/or directly employed or subcontracted and;
- A guarantee that a reduction in the number of hours worked by an employee pursuant to new compliance with the explicit protections for physical labourers (detailed above) will not under any circumstances result in a reduction in the amount of income currently received by that employee and will in no instance be less than the domestic agricultural minimum wage.
- Implement an ongoing credible and effective assurance mechanism to ensure that all stipulations above are complied with. This assurance mechanism should include independent third party audits;
- Uphold supply chain loyalty and to ensure that the buyers’ suppliers commit to supply chain loyalty with respect to producers and producer countries.
- Offer fair and credible compensation to the cost bearers for the extra expenses caused by compliance with each of the key changes described.
Key recommendations for Central American governments
- To effectively enforce the ratified ILO’s Conventions on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize Convention (nº 087), and the Plantation Convention (nº 110), part 9, article 54 on the right to organise and collective bargaining;
- For governments that have not ratified yet ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health: to rafity this convention and ensure effective implementation and enforcement.
- To renew their commitment to the ILO Decent Work programme.
CNV Internationaal invites all stakeholders to come together in order to identify best practices within the industry and work collaboratively with the trade unions on establishing policies and practices to create positive change.
Only together we can change the lives of those working in the sugarcane industry!