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inclusion of a living wage in the Bonsucro standard

Bonsucro, the global sugar agroindustry’s main sustainability certifier, strives for a socially and environmentally sustainable production throughout the sugar value chain. Currently, Bonsucro is in the process of updating its ‘production standard’, the set of norms to be complied with to be eligible for its certification seal. Now, workers and experts have joined forces to support the inclusion in the new Bonsucro standard of the concept of a ‘living wage’, in addition to the reduction of working hours (so as not to affect workers' health) and the promotion of social dialogue.

In the words of Miguel Canessa, LLM, an expert on international labour law, ‘certifications are a way for companies to link themselves to international law’ – in this case, to the 190 international Conventions that establish the universal validity of labour rights, drawn up by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) up to 2019. Along with other experts, union representatives and members of Bonsucro, Canessa was a participant in the Forum A Sweeter Sugar for All, convened by CNV Internationaal to support the current public consultation, which ends on 31 July, of the draft renewed Bonsucro production standard, the most important sustainability certification in the sugar sector worldwide.

CNV Internationaal is the first trade union federation to have gained Bonsucro membership. It has been a very active member throughout the process of updating the certifier’s production standard, providing analyses and arguments for the strengthening of social dialogue and for reducing working hours in the sector to 60 hours a week. But reduced working hours must go hand in hand with a salary that allows workers to live a worthy life, and for this reason, CNV Internationaal advocates the inclusion of the concept of a decent salary – which is not necessarily synonymous with the minimum wage in a country or sector. ‘We welcome the fact that a living wage, a reduction in working hours and a strong social dialogue have been included in the draft standard which is currently under public consultation, and we are convinced that they should continue to be part of the final standard: the Bonsucro standard will only have credibility if it includes all these three aspects,’ emphasises CNV Internationaal Director, Marit Maij.

Certification schemes and their link to human rights in the workplace
When we speak of labour-related human rights, we refer to the convergence between the ILO Conventions and other international instruments that protect fundamental human rights. This connection has resulted in some 30 (essential) labour-related human rights that should ensure human dignity in the workplace and guarantee the satisfaction of basic needs through employment.

When certification schemes for sustainable production such as Bonsucro take advantage of these international human rights instruments, they incorporate into their business vision the idea that competition in international trade cannot be related to violations of these fundamental labour rights. Miguel Canessa puts it differently: ‘If a [company] or an economic activity violates these labour-related human rights, what it actually does is prove that its profitability is based on the exploitation of workers’. Canessa considers that what certification organisations should aim to validate is that all companies in the value chain, from crop producers and suppliers to processing industries, do indeed comply with fundamental labour rights.


Recognising a living wage as a human right
‘When we recognise that a living wage is a human right, it becomes a beacon that is always there to remind us that we need to achieve it’, says Wilbert Flinterman, expert advisor on labour rights and trade union relations at Fairtrade International. Flinterman admits however that ‘the road [towards achieving this] may be fraught with challenges and pitfalls that will have to be overcome’.

CNV Internationaal agrees with this expert in that private standards, such as Bonsucro’s, cannot be used to force governments to legislate on living wages; what such norms can achieve, however, is that employers seeking to have their companies certified on the basis of these standards negotiate with workers’ elected representatives, thus opening a path towards a living wage.

Wilbert Flinterman suggests several steps can be taken on the road towards a living wage. The first one is creating a permanent dialogue between trade unions and sugar producers and processors. Such a channel of communication will help Bonsucro in getting its active members to accept freedom of association, collective bargaining and the search for a living wage as human rights, without reservation. Another step would be to urge buyers to make a concrete economic commitment to living wages. The responsibility of employers to regularly negotiate on wages via a stuctured social dialogue must be backed up by a responsibility of buyers to support trading conditions in which living wages are feasible. ‘In this respect, trade unions should also advocate fair trade and show solidarity with producers,’  Flinterman suggests.

One of the major problems regarding the inclusion of living wages in the Bonsucro certification standard is the lack of a universal scale for measuring what constitutes ‘a living wage’. Flinterman advises establishing a series of points of reference, which could be the values produced by the Anker research network: Anker’s methodology is supported by ISEAL, an international organisation that brings together the most credible and rigorous sustainability standards in the world, and Bonsucro is an ISEAL member. The expert also points out that for the time being, ‘in the absence of [‘living wage’] reference points, it is necessary to agree on a minimum percentage for wage increases, and avoid inflation and taxes neutralizing wage improvements; and we must seek to ensure that those wage increases result from agreements negotiated with the unions’.

When it comes to the inclusion of the concept of a ‘living wage’ in the Bonsucro standard, the necesary points of reference and the costs that would be involved in conducting studies in each of the countries to define a benchmark raise enormous concerns in the sugar sector. However, we have to point out several considerations in this regard. The first is that for almost all the countries where Bonsucro affiliates operate, a benchmark living wage is already defined. Furthermore, existing methodologies are available allowing for a benchmark study that does not require field research, which reduces costs. Finally, and very importantly, there is the fact that several sustainability certification schemes in other value chains have already successfully implemented the concept of a living wage, and studies are already available on this subject. All of these are strong arguments for not giving up this innovative and fair concept when it comes to the Bonsucro standard.


A trade union movement that makes demands and proposes solutions
As part of the process of updating the Bonsucro standard, the Network of Sugar Unions of Central America has made visible some of the problems afflicting the sugar sector. It has however also put forward a number of proposals aimed at achieving a standard that truly responds to the concepts of social sustainability and corporate responsibility.

For the Network’s co-ordinator, Noé Gilberto Nerio, ‘not including a living wage in the production standard is a social risk factor: it generates family pressure and encourages child labour’, and he adds: ‘the discontent of workers about their income increases social tensions; sugarcane workers make their wives and children participate in their job, and that is invisible work, with no salary’.

For the trade unions in the Network, there can be no Bonsucro certification without a social dialogue between (organised) workers and employers. The unions also believe the clearest expression of this social dialogue would be the negotiation of a pact, a collective agreement that guarantees the rights and obligations of the parties.

Nerio recalls the dynamic role of trade unions, and stresses they can play a crucial role in ensuring that the improvements introduced in the Bonsucro standard will be sustained over time. Because as  Mario Amador, general manager of the Association of Sugar Producers of Nicaragua, says: ‘If you do not have the commitment of your workers, you will never be able to achieve a certification as demanding as the Bonsucro sugar seal’.

CNV Internationaal will continue to develop activities to ensure that the new Bonsucro standard is going to be a rigorous and high quality certification norm. With this in mind, it will organise, coming August, a discussion between supporters and detractors of including a living wage in the Bonsucro standard. CNV Internationaal also commissioned a digital survey, carried out through the KoboCollect tool (developed by the Harvard Humantarian Initiative and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), in order to obtain data on working conditions from workers in the sector themselves.

The sugar industry now has a golden opportunity to come up with a standard that takes into account the interests of all the actors in its value chain, a standard that is innovative and will be recognised for complying with and promoting labour-related human rights.

Publication date 27 07 2020