Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Still slaving over sugar

Despite the many 19th century acts declaring the emancipation of the enslaved, there are still practices in sugar production that need to be abolished. Is mechanisation the answer?

Ben Richardson
23 February 2015
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Cutting cane in Brazil in 2004. John McQuaid/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The legal trade in human chattel may have ended but the egregious exploitation of sugar labourers has not. The industry continues to draw on management techniques developed in slave times – including the use of disempowered migrant, bonded and child labour – to keep costs down and profits up. It’s working: the global sugar market is worth US$68 billion and is making some plantation owners very rich indeed.

One way in which surplus value continues to be squeezed out of the labour force has been through intensifying the working day. This has been the case in Brazil, the world’s leading producer of sugarcane. As my recent field research confirmed, rather than being paid a day rate or salary, field workers are paid a piece-rate according to how much cane they cut. Alongside this economic inducement, cultural norms are deployed that associate large harvests with masculine notions of strength and fortitude. These incentives to (over)work are supported by techniques to prevent under-work. The initial hiring process involves a long trial period in which those who cut less cane are not retained. For those who are kept on, transport to and from the fields at set times and the threat of unpaid suspension or not being rehired next season keeps workers from easing off. This calculated increase in worker productivity has resulted in a regime of bio-psychological exhaustion. According to a lawyer with the São Paulo district attorney, at least 18 cane-cutters died in the state from dehydration, heart attacks or other ailments between 2004 and 2008.

In essence, the working lives of cane-cutters are condensed down into a few years of extreme toil, at which point they have to be replaced by new workers willing to take on the challenge. This helps explain the prevalence of migrant workers in the sugar industry, as these are the people who most desperately seek waged employment and are most readily disciplined into the workforce.

Ensuring a ready supply of migrant labourers is key to the second strategy by which exploitation has taken place: lowering the wage. One way this has been achieved is through the use of bonded labour, where debt is used as a mechanism both to recruit workers and severely restrict their freedom, wages and bargaining power. In Tamil Nadu, India – another of the world’s major sugarcane producers – many estates rely on lower-paid migrant labour organised by the sugar mills. The mills use intermediary labour contractors offering advance, lump-sum payments to recruit people from low-caste communities, who are then transported to the cane fields often hundreds of kilometres from where they live. In the face of widespread poverty and unemployment, these jobs are attractive to the workers as they provide a lump sum loan that can be used to cover immediate expenditures – say a marriage ceremony or medical fees – and offer a modicum of job security. However, the pittance wages paid leave the workers with very little at the end of the season, making it difficult to pay off their debt. Many are thus trapped into returning to the highly crowded and unhygienic makeshift camps of cane cutters year after year.

Another way in which wages have been lowered is through child labour. In desk research I gathered credible sources which reported this in the sugar industries of twenty-three countries, many of which export to the USA and the UK. Across the world, tens of thousands of children are incorporated into sugar’s division of labour, assigned different work according to their age and sex. While older boys tend to do manual harvesting and chemical spraying, younger children are tasked with things like planting, weeding and stacking the crops for mechanical loading. For this they are paid much less than adults, often because they are deemed as ‘family helpers’ for which they do not need to be rewarded individually.

As well as working on the site of production, children also work without recognition on the site of reproduction. This refers to domestic labour in the camps set up to accommodate migrant workers, where girls do chores such as cooking, washing clothes, and fetching water and wood. This mirrors much of the work done by children on family farms, which may not be directly related to sugarcane production but is nonetheless invaluable to the farm’s economic viability. Both of these unpaid forms of labour help to suppress wages by reducing the amount income-earners have to spend on subsistence.

In my experience talking to industry actors and development organisations about these exploitative labour practices, it is common for them to be dismissed as artefacts of a bygone age. These jobs are intrinsically abusive and un-remunerative, the argument goes, and so have no place in a modern economy. As such, a far better way of protecting workers in the sugar industry is to do away with manual labour and family farming altogether. This dovetails with the desire of some company managers to increase labour productivity not by intensifying the working day but by industrialising agriculture. Mechanised farming on standardised fields is the most sustainable route to long-term profitability.

But notes of caution must be sounded. Just because machines can make work easier, it doesn’t mean they do. For example, reports have surfaced of drivers working 24-hour shifts in Brazilian cane fields at harvest time, leading to serious accidents due to exhaustion at the wheel. Moreover, it seems somewhat perverse as a developmental strategy to eradicate abusive labour through mass unemployment, especially when alternative forms of stable waged labour are not readily available. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, the British-owned company Illovo Sugar slashed its African workforce by over 10,000 people at the same time as it actually expanded output. This is the general direction that the global industry is moving in: ever-more sugar produced by ever-fewer people. Given the adverse health effects of sugar for consumers too, it poses important questions about quite who benefits from this model of rural development.

But other options are available. Workers can protect themselves if trade unions are empowered to negotiate better conditions. Child labour can be de-incentivised if universal free schooling is provided. The pressure on family farming can be eased through more equitable supply-chain pricing models, while appropriate technology can be developed that seeks a socially-acceptable form of increased productivity. And of course, there’s always the option of using sugar land for other purposes entirely. Cooperatively grown sweet potato, anyone?

Ben Richardson’s new book, Sugar, is due out September 2015 in the Polity Resources series.

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