Since its introduction in Brazil in the early 16th century, the sugarcane industry has been characterized by a strong dependence on manpower. Similar to any large-scale farming and production operation, sugarcane cultivation, harvesting and processing requires lots of workers and machinery. Brazil’s sugar and ethanol mills employ more than a million workers earning good wages. Of that number, approximately 500,000 are sugarcane cutters, with 140,000 of those cutters located in São Paulo, Brazil’s top cane producing state.
Reducing the Need for Manual Labor
For centuries, sugarcane fields around the world have been burned to eliminate sugarcane straw (that is plant tops and leaves), drive away snakes and other potentially poisonous animals, and make it easier for workers to cut the cane by hand. However, technological advances and environmental concerns have increased demand for mechanized harvesting because it eliminates the need for burning the field. Mechanization already accounts for more than 70 percent of the harvest in São Paulo and will be the only means of harvesting there by 2017.
With mechanization advancing and rapidly replacing manual harvesting, the sugarcane industry has focused on retraining workers involved in manual planting and harvesting for new activities.
Retraining Loyal Workers for New Jobs
In 2009, UNICA joined forces with John Deere, Case IH, Solidaridad and Syngenta – all key players in the sugarcane industry supply chain – to create the largest training and re-qualification program (RenovAção Project) for sugarcane industry workers in the world. The program also receives financial support from the Inter-American Development Bank. Some of the highlights of RenovAção Project include:
- Retraining 6,000 workers.
- Providing technical training for sugarcane industry related jobs like harvest operation and mechanical repair.
- Providing training on other skills demanded in the local communities such as sewing, catering and shoe making.
- Customizing training programs for different production areas of the state.
In addition, UNICA member companies have retrained another 22,000 workers replicating the courses offered in the RenovAção project.
The RenovAção Project clearly demonstrates the total synergy and solid commitment of the entire sugarcane production chain with sustainable practices that continue to enhance the labor conditions of sugarcane workers in Brazil.
Additional detail on this and other social programs supported by Brazilian sugarcane mills can be found in UNICA’s most recent Sustainability Report.