Sugarcane production in Brazil follows strict labor standards that should serve as an example for sugarcane industries around the globe.
Similar to any large scale farming and production operation, sugarcane cultivation, harvesting and processing requires significant manpower and machinery. The Brazilian sugarcane industry employs over one million people, or nearly a quarter of the country’s total rural workforce. Salaries for sugarcane industry workers are among the highest in Brazil’s agriculture, second only to wages in the soybean industry. On average, a sugarcane cutter makes more than Brazil’s per capita income, as measured by the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. While mechanization will gradually displace the need for cane cutters, the sugarcane industry is retraining many of those workers to operate modern machinery or work in other segments of the economy.
Moreover, all workers in the sugarcane industry are represented in collective bargaining negotiations irrespective of their decision to join a labor union. Among UNICA member companies, 98 percent of all workers are fully documented. By way of comparison, 13 percent of all U.S. agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Putting Our Commitment to Workers in Writing
To continue to grow, the Brazilian sugarcane industry understands the need to invest in its most valuable asset: its workers. In 2009, the sugarcane industry joined forces with the Brazilian government and labor representatives to institute best practices nationwide and improve working conditions by articulating a National Commitment to Enhance Working Conditions in Sugarcane.
Companies that signed this agreement must meet a strict set of 30 best practices that go beyond legal obligations. One item in the agreement deals with hiring workers through a middleman. The practice is not against the law, but was banned under the National Commitment, because both employers and unions agreed that in some situations hiring through middlemen created instances of abuse or exploitation. Other key points in the agreement include worker transportation improvements, added transparency in measuring and paying for worker production, support for migrants hired from other regions, enhanced practices for health and safety, and strengthening of unions and the collective bargaining processes.
Conducted by independent auditing firms, verification of compliance with the National Commitment started in 2012. 169 companies obtained a seal that proves their commitment with the best working practices established by the agreement. Other 86 companies, also signatories of the National Commitment are currently being audited to receive the seal in a near future.
Check the full list of companies that obtained the seal on the website of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of Brazil at www.secretariageral.gov.br
Additional detail on this and other social programs supported by Brazilian sugarcane mills can be found in UNICA’s most recent Sustainability Report.