The challenge of retraining and offering better job options to ex-cane cutters in Brazil

Given the growing environmental concerns and technological innovations, Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry is undergoing a rapid process of mechanization. Manual labor is being substituted by mechanized processes of planting and harvesting sugarcane. In the State of São Paulo, which produces approximately 60% of Brazil's sugarcane, almost 70% of the sugarcane is now being harvested mechanically.

Phase out of sugarcane field burning but retaining jobs for workers

This is a consequence of a commitment made by the sector to anticipate to 2014 the phase out pre-harvest burning of the sugarcane fields. This practice traditionally carried out before manual harvesting facilitates the work of the cane cutters. In order to reduce air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions, the State of Sao Paulo had passed a law enforcing sugarcane field burning to be phased-out by 2021. But the sector has entered into an agreement with the Sao Paulo Environmental Agency to anticipate the mechanization to 2014 on the majority of the plantation areas in the state.

Mechanical harvesting is better for people & planet

In the long run, mechanical harvesting is better for employees and the environment, but in the short run it means that a significant number of rural workers, who currently earn a living cutting cane, will lose their jobs. In accordance to a research of Universidade Estadual de São Paulo (Unesp) around 40,000 sugarcane cutting jobs have been lost since 2007 due to mechanization. At the same time thousands of jobs have been opened in the industry by the mechanization itself, like harvester operator, truck driver, mechanic and welder. One of the biggest challenges is to retrain the cane cutters, either ensuring them better job options at the sugar mills and ethanol plants, or training them to work in other sectors of the Brazilian economy. These workers helped to build the sugar cane industry in Brazil, and treating them with due respect developing mechanisms to find alternative employment is part of the ethical responsibilities of a US$ 20 billion industry.

Solidaridad South America facilitates responsible transition

Solidaridad South America has been working to facilitate a responsible transition from manual to mechanized harvesting since 2010. We are working with Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA), the Federation of Rural Workers in São Paulo State (Feraesp) and companies in the sector aware of this situation to retrain the cane cutters. In the end of 2010, we joined forces with UNICA and Feraesp to strenghten a job training and job relocation program, called RenovAção project. This partnership includes, besides Unica, Feraesp and Solidaridad, the supply chain companies Syngenta, John Deere, Case IH and Iveco, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

Project RenovAção: training sugarcane cutters to do different work

The main goal of the RenovAção project is to provide specialized training for approximately 3,000 workers per year in six of the major sugarcane producing areas in São Paulo: Ribeirão Preto, Piracicaba, Bauru, Araçatuba, São José do Rio Preto and Presidente Prudente. Initially, the RenovAção Program had two modules – one focused on training for mechanized activities of the sector; the other designed to retrain members of communities that were being impacted by the process of substituting the workforce. Solidaridad has been working in the project to develop also trainings to the construction sector because of the opportunities currently available in the Brazilian market labor. We proposed also to increase women’s participation in all kind of courses. It is fundamental to take in consideration the constraints for women to participate in requalification programs, like less time in the nights and weekends.

Another goal of RenovAção is to offer highly-quality courses by the best technical schools and teachers, which combine practical and theoretical classes designed to effectively help workers advance professionally. In many cases, course exceeded 300 class hours. As the project was implemented on the ground, it became clear that it could be improved if there was a close link between the training and the job opportunities that are available in Brazil currently. Actually the lack of skilled workers has threatened the Brazilian growth. It estimated that thousands of cane cutters will lose their jobs in the next four years, but they will hardly exploit the new market opportunities because they are unskilled. So there is an opportunity to retrain these workers in specialized skills to supply specific shortages in Brazilian Economy.

At the same time, there is a large group of less skilled and less literate rural worker who are not being able of participating in the several training programs that are now in place in the country and even in the RenovAção. The problem is that all the courses demand primary education (8 years). So this semester, Solidaridad has partnered with UNICA and Feraesp to create a new module in the program called Pré-RenovAção, that will prepare the illiterate or the almost illiterate to be able to participate in the RenovAção courses. The ones that finish this preparatory course will have a guarantee of participating in the RenovAção technical courses.