Global brands show interest in improved working conditions for sugarcane cutters

After years of research and investigation, a solution has been found that could save thousands of lives each year. Last month, international business representatives and scientists converged on Amsterdam to discuss practical solutions being developed to prevent the epidemic of chronic kidney disease among sugarcane cutters in Central America; a disease that has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of young men.

The event was held in August at the opening of “Sugarcane, Fuel for Change”, a heart-wrenching exhibition by international photojournalist Ed Kashi about the sugarcane workers of Nicaragua and El Salvador. The exhibition is open to the public in De Melkweg, Amsterdam, until 4 October.

Representatives from international companies who rely heavily on sugar production, such as Unilever and Coca Cola, attended the event to learn more about improved labour conditions being implemented in order to prevent the kidney disease epidemic. Dr. Ramon Garcia from El Salvador shared his decades-long struggle investigating and seeking support to fight this “silent massacre.”

Support Dr. Garcia would eventually find from Jason Glaser, CEO of the La Isla Foundation. Sponsored by Solidaridad and the La Isla Foundation, Glaser presented optimistic research results and shared best practices that have changed the lives of sugarcane cutters, simple measures like water hydration backpacks for continuous access to clean water and cooling, or rest tents offering shade that move with teams in the field.

Solidaridad’s Managing Director for Central America, Michaelyn Bachhuber Bauer, explained how better working conditions are a crucial area of focus for Solidaridad programmes. In conclusion, Elin Astrom of H&M confirmed its importance as she described how H&M monitors and evaluates working conditions among their textile suppliers.

Presentations were interspersed with live music from Frank Torres, a Nicaraguan singer and musician with friends and family in the sugarcane fields who translated these tragic experiences into the soul-searching sounds of ranchero folk music common to that area.

After reaching out to their hearts and minds, visitors were ushered into a visual journey with the grand opening of Ed Kashi’s photography exhibition.

Solidaridad continues to cooperate closely with the La Isla Foundation as the two organizations now work to spread the best practices resulting from recent research. El Angel mill is one example of a producer that is fully supportive of implementing these changes with the hope that other companies will see this as beneficial to their own business in the near future.

If you are from a company that depends on producers in the sugar industry and would like more information about evaluating and improving working conditions, please contact Solidaridad’s Sugarcane Programme Manager, Sven Sielhorst, using the information below.

If you would like to see more of Ed Kashi’s inside look at the life of sugarcane cutters, follow us on Instagram and Twitter.

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This event was made possible by support from the Dutch National Postcode Lottery, La Isla Foundation, Bio Futura (sustainable disposables) and De Melkweg.