Workers’ rights are the heart of a sustainable sugarcane industry

Sven Sielhorst from Solidaridad Network attended the Bonsucro Conference last week in Brisbane, Australia. He held a speech about the past & current situation in the sugarcane industry in Guatemala. An exhibition, 'Faces of Cane' with photos of sugarcane cutters from the book that Sven refers to, is now travelling through Australia. A book and a larger exhibition are a joint project by Impunity Watch and Solidaridad.


Sven Sielhorst:

Ladies and Gentlemen

My name is Sven Sielhorst. I work for an international non governmental organisation called Solidaridad. We aim to help small scale farmers and farm workers to improve their well being. We work across a range of commodities, and sugarcane is one of them.

I am glad to have the opportunity to share some of our work with you. Looking at the agenda, I saw a strong prevalence of environmental issues. And that’s great. Because it shows that social issues are not top of the list in Australia. There is room to focus on environmental issues when talking about sustainability. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in many other countries where we work. I’d like to take you through our history with the town of Santa Lucia, Guatemala – a showcase of how social issues can dominate the agenda. And bear with me: I will end with words of hope.

Two weeks ago, this book arrived in Guatemala. Its title says: "Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza". Because we wanted to get out of poverty. The memorable history of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. 

Santa Lucia is a small town on the south coast of Guatemala. It is surrounded by green fields of cane that feed into the mills of Pantaleon, La Unión and Madre Tierra. In the beginning of the 1980s, sugarcane workers organized a huge strike to improve their working conditions as well as their wage. The strike was led by the Committee for Peasant Unity, the CUC, which had been originated in Santa Lucia – and it was successful. Wages went up 200% and people were overjoyed by this success.

About one month after this victory, padre Walter Voordeckers was gunned down in front of his parish church in Santa Lucía. He had been a strong and outspoken   supporter of the right of workers to organize themselves. More CUC sympathisers and members followed. Marcelina Catalán, Isidro Loch and his sister María Victoria Loch, Benigno Ambrosio, 8 members of the Bautista family, Macabeo Aguilar. They were shot in broad daylight, arrested in front of their children, or they simply disappeared never to be heard of again. Over a period of three years, more than 100 people were killed or disappeared , wrecking families and bringing fear and distrust to the community of Santa Lucia. 

Solidaridad has been involved with the community of Santa Lucia from even before the days of the strike. Time has seen improvements in the working conditions of cane cutters. Cutters are brought to the field in busses instead of on the back of lorries. There is safe and cool drinking water available now. There is shade to protect the workers against the burning sun during lunch breaks. There is better access to  medical support.

But some things haven’t changed. An average cane cutter around Santa Lucia today earns about 80 euros a week during the six months of the harvest. For this, they work 6 to 7 days a week, working about 12 hours a day. . This is not enough to support a family during the year, send the children to school, etc. The work pressure is high. Cane cutters are stimulated to outdo each other by handing out motorcycles stereos to the best performers. They go to such lengths that  take pills with names like “No Sleep” to be able to cut more . We have seen ‘labour contracts’ between a cane cutter and a middle men which is nothing more than a hand written piece of paper saying what the cutter gets per ton. There is an absence of unions to negotiate improvements. People remember well what happened 30 years ago – and are afraid to organize themselves again.

Poverty, fear and physical stress. Despite the improvements that I mentioned earlier, these are still  part of sugarcane life in Santa Lucia today . Sadly, Santa Lucia is not an exception in the world. That is why Solidaridad is happy to be part of Bonsucro. Together, we can transform the global sugarcane industry into a basis for dignified life for all of its stakeholders, including cane cutters. Numerous countries and companies, some of which are with us today, have shown us that this can be a reality and makes good business sense.

Stuart Kyle, Director Workplace Accountability at The Coca Cola Company, spoke about workers’ rights at last years conference as ”the 800 pound gorilla in the room that nobody speaks about”. This is a situation that has to change. It is imperative for the credibility and legitimacy of the global sugarcane sector, and particularly for Bonsucro, to address workers rights and poverty effectively. Certification may be part of the answer to this question. But it will not solve the issue entirely.

The lack of workers’ rights is not simply a matter of malice of the mill owner or the middle men. Rather, it is the outcome of complex economic, social and political realities in which the sugarcane is produced. This is what we learned from our engagement with the people of Santa Lucía. We do not solve these issues by simply pointing fingers at each other, or at the system. We are all part of several social, economic and political realities, and everyone of us has some level of influence over them. Therefore, I encourage each and everyone of you to use your influence to improve the lives of the men and women who stand at the basis of your industry: the cane cutters.

We at Solidaridad are proud to use our influence by way of presenting the faces of cane to you, in a mini photo exhibition which you can see at the back of this room. I invite you to take a closer look at them in the break.

More importantly, we as Bonsucro members can bring together our knowledge, our experiences, our brain power and our market power. I would like to propose that we at Bonsucro keep workers’ rights high on the agenda by embedding it explicitly in the global producer and innovation network. I believe that we should leave the past of polarization behind us, and combine our forces to continue the stepwise improvements that we have seen around Santa Lucia and around the world.

The book has been presented in Santa Lucia on November 2nd. The book contains the names, the stories, and the faces of the victims of oppression in Santa Lucia – as told by their relatives. It is a monument for those who lost their lives doing what they felt was right. More importantly, it is a symbol of the human resilience and it shows that people shall overcome when they unite. Let’s follow their example.