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The agrofuels industry in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras

Gerardo CERDAS VEGA

10 / 2007

Here we analyze the cases of Costa Rica and Nicaragua in order to have an idea of the day-to-day reality of thousands of agricultural workers in the region. In this sense, it is necessary to underline that the increase of migration (temporary or permanent) from Nicaragua to Costa Rica allowed for the creation of a kind of binational zone of sugarcane plantations, where the former country supplied cheap labor and the latter supplied machinery and capital, but also where workers rights are violated.

The harvest in Costa Rica is carried out between December and May, and in Nicaragua between November and May. An agreement between the two countries for “import” of Nicaraguan labor contemplates favorable conditions for workers (migrant protection, financial loans, supplying of tools). But the agreement is not carried out, which means that many workers have no other option than to become “illegal.”

The sugarcane industry in Costa Rica includes 7,000 independent producers and 16 large plantations. These plantations are located in four regions: Pacífico Central, Pacífico Seco, Huetar Norte and Huetar Atlántica.

In Nicaragua, the control of the production and commercialization of sugarcane, both for external and internal markets, is in the hands of large producers. In Nicaragua, four sugarcane plantations exist that control the entire process of production.

Profile of workers and working conditions

In the case of Costa Rica, the profile of workers varies according to the region. Over the past few years, the phenomenon of migration has increased, and it is reflected in the fact that more than 90% of workers in the sugarcane industry in the Pacifico Seco region come from Nicaragua. This creates a profile of workers that, in irregular migratory conditions according to existing laws, frequently accept working conditions much lower than the standards established by the Labor Code of Costa Rica and by the Agreements of the International Labor Organization, including Agreement 87 and 98, which have been adopted into law by the Costa Rican legal system. In contrast with previous percentages, in other regions of the country (for example, Huertar Norte and Pacifico Central), 85% of the manual labor is from Costa Rica, and 15% is foreign, especially from Nicaragua.

Normally, the workers also work in other seasonal agricultural activities (coffee harvest, cutting of pineapple groves, etc), in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica; therefore, their rotation in different productive activities is very high. The reduced participation of women is common as well; more than 90% of workers are men.

In Nicaragua, workers are principally of national origin and an immense majority is temporary workers. More than 90% of workers are men who dedicate themselves to other seasonal agricultural activities during the year, both in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

In both countries, working conditions are difficult, labor violations are widespread, and the contracts are precarious and flexible; in other words, labor legislation is absolutely disrespected.

Working conditions in the sugarcane industry

COSTA RICA

Contract

  • Creation of contracts is performed many times in an indirect manner through a contractor. The contractor performs an intermediary role between the plantations, the independent producers, and the workers. Even when the worker is contracted without the mediation of the contractor, their labor rights are violated.

  • Women participate in an unequal way in the production process, and are more vulnerable to violations of their rights due to the fact that they are contracted indirectly and verbally only. Women receive no direct payment. Instead, the payment is handed over to the men who claim to be their partners.

Wages

  • A recurring wage flexibility exists in the sector, as within the different regions of the country payment is calculated differently: in some cases workers are paid per ton and in others they are paid per linear meter of cut sugarcane. Legislation in regards to minimum wages is not respected, since the average wage of $8 per day is only granted after working more hours than is allowed by law.

  • The contractor defines the quantity of wages to be paid to the workers, depending on the profit they aim to make. The plantation contractor receives the entire workers’ wages and pays the workers, a scheme which dilutes the employer’s responsibility.

  • The illegal situation of many workers leads many of them to work at the plantations in exchange for food, which violates legislation that establishes minimum salaries and wage protection.

  • In sugarcane production, overtime goes unpaid.

Working hours

  • The work schedule passes 8 hours daily (and can reach 10 to 12 hours daily)

  • There are only two free days per month. Workers work 28 or 29 days per month, and are forced to be absolutely available to the landowner.

Union building

  • In Costa Rica, the freedom to build unions does not exist, and therefore unions do not exist in sugarcane plantations. Only “Solidarity Associations” are legal, which are controlled by the plantation owners in order to eliminate autonomous unions.

  • Subcontracting, migratory irregularity, and reduced temporality of the harvest make union building practically impossible among workers.

Social Security and Job Risks

  • In many cases, workers do not have any social security or insurance to cover job risk, and they do not receive any kind of recognition in extra wages, such as bonuses or loans during periods of inactivity. Only permanent workers are insured, and they represent a small portion of the total amount of workers linked to sugar production.

  • Exposure to adverse climactic factors, the use of machinery and tools, and the handling of toxic substances produce work accidents, and directly impact workers’ health and lives.

NICARAGUA

Contract

  • Subcontracting between “contractual” businesses is a generally common practice. 90% of workers in the industry are subcontracted.

  • The subcontracted worker has no access to socioeconomic benefits that plantations offer to permanent workers, which aggravates their situation of poverty and social exclusion. The contract is always carried out through verbal agreement.

  • Transport workers and independent workers are also subcontracted during harvest. The independent workers do not even appear in the logs of the plantations, as they do not have a formal relationship and, obviously, no type of benefits or insurance. This kind of contracting is called “service contracting.” We find these kinds of contractual conditions for truck drivers, helpers, lifters, and peons.

Wages

  • A recurring wage flexibility exists in the sector, as within the different regions of the country payment is calculated differently: in some cases workers are paid per ton and in others they are paid per linear meter of cut sugarcane. Legislation in regards to minimum wages is not respected, since the average wage of $8 per day is only granted after working more hours than is allowed by law.

  • The contractor defines the quantity of wages to be paid to the workers, depending on the profit they aim to make. The plantation contractor receives the entire workers’ wages and pays the workers, a scheme which dilutes the employer’s responsibility.

  • The illegal situation of many workers leads many of them to work at the plantations in exchange for food, which violates legislation that establishes minimum salaries and wage protection.

  • In sugarcane production, overtime goes unpaid.

  • In relation to wages, the average wage does not rise about $70 USD per month, which does not allow for a family to meet its basic necessities.

Working hours

  • The work schedule passes 8 hours daily (and can reach 10 to 12 hours daily)

  • There are only two free days per month. Workers work 28 or 29 days per month, and are forced to be absolutely available to the landowner.

  • Working hours are close to 12 hours daily or more during the harvest (between 4 and 7 months on average)

  • This means that workers, during harvest, work a minimum 84 hours per week, with no time for sufficient rest during the season, and are exposed to extreme climactic conditions.

Union building

In Costa Rica, the freedom to build unions does not exist, and therefore unions do not exist in sugarcane plantations. Only “Solidarity Associations” are legal, which are controlled by the plantation owners in order to eliminate autonomous unions.

Subcontracting, migratory irregularity, and reduced temporality of the harvest make union building practically impossible among workers.

Practices of massive subcontracting diminish the negotiating power of union representation. Few unions exist and they have small memberships, since only 30% of plantations are unionized, and only permanent workers may join.

100% of temporary sugarcane workers are not organized in any union, and cannot exercise collective worker rights.

Plantations use threats of demission, lower wages, or worker relocation if a worker expresses their intention to join or create a union. This data can be proven by observing that 82.6% of those interviewed considered that in their workplace there is a prohibition of the right to free association.

Meanwhile, there are unions formed by the plantations with administrative staff that are used as a screen to deflect accusations regarding violations of the right to freely associate in the sector.

Social Security and Job Risks

In many cases, workers do not have any social security or insurance to cover job risk, and they do not receive any kind of recognition in extra wages, such as bonuses or loans during periods of inactivity. Only permanent workers are insured, and they represent a small portion of the total amount of workers linked to sugar production.

Exposure to adverse climactic factors, the use of machinery and tools, and the handling of toxic substances produce work accidents, and directly impact workers’ health and lives.

Sources: Acuña (2004, 2005); Legall (2005)

Work-related risks and illnesses in sugar production in Costa Rica

Risks include exposure to pollution and heat from machines, contact with agrochemicals, toxic dust, vapors, and gases from pesticides and fertilizers. Similarly, the environment presents risks such as overheating (high temperatures), ultraviolet radiation (solar), and severe climatic conditions (rain, wind, sun, etc).

Sugarcane workers also suffer from illnesses such as cystitis (a painful inflammation of the urinary tract as a result of bearing high temperatures produced during the burning of sugarcane) and diarrhea, as a consequence of eating food with dirty hands in the same area in which they work.

Source: Acuña, 2004.

Work-related risks and illnesses in sugar production in Nicaragua

In relation to work accidents, 85.5% of workers report having suffered cuts; 7.5% indicate having suffered burns, and 3% suffered fractures.

In relation to the main work-related illnesses, we find that skin cancer and lung cancer, kidney problems, sterility, and partial loss of vision are most common.

Exposure to chemical products, inhaling soot during burnings, prolonged exposure to adverse environmental factors and exposure to toxic residues all figure as the main risk factors for workers.

In each case, the rate of health coverage and attention to these accidents is extremely low, both within the public health system as well as businessled initiatives.

Source: Legall, 2005.

Honduras

Principal problems at sugarcane plantations

Temporary workers (harvest)

  • Frequent suffering from bronchial illnesses, product of their permanent exposure to soot generated by burnings and dust kicked up by the trucks that transport the sugarcane.

  • Strong headaches from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, since the harvest period includes the majority of summer, and the geographic location of the sugarcane fields is in the hottest areas of the country.

  • Fatigue and muscular pain from excessive work hours, performing tasks that by their nature require strong force and physical expenditure.

  • Constant pain in the waist and kidneys from the permanent repetition of doubling over and lifting up during cutting, little consumption of water that does not replace the excessive sweating.

  • Skin irritations as a result of working with pesticides.

Permanent workers (plantations)

  • Bronchial pains from exposure to chemical products.

  • Headaches from high temperatures.

  • Hearing problems from noise produced by machinery during the production process.

  • Cases of visual irritation in some plantations that do not supply appropriate work goggles for those who handle and clean the boilers.

Source: Irías, 2005.

Mots-clés

agrocarburant, conditions de travail, droit du travail


, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras

dossier

Agroénergie : mythes et impacts en Amérique latine

Notes

This file « Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America » is the result of a seminar about the expansion of sugarcane plantations in Latin America, which took place in São Paulo, Brazil, from February 26-28, 2007.

This file is also available in french, spanish and portuguese.

Source

Aspectos Relevantes de la Agroindustria de la caña de azúcar en Costa Rica y Nicaragua, Gerardo Cerdas Vega.

Acuña, Guillermo, La agroindustria de la caña de azúcar en Costa Rica: características,organización y condiciones laborales, San José, Costa Rica, 2004.

Acuña, Guillermo, Situación y condición de las personas trabajadoras de la producción de cañade azúcar en Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica, 2005

Legall Torres, Alberto José, La Industria del Azúcar en Nicaragua y sus condiciones laborales, Managua, Nicaragua, 2005.

Irías Coello, Ayax, Diagnóstico sobre la producción y las condiciones laborales en laagroindustria de la caña de azúcar en Honduras, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 2005.

Iniciativa CID, 22 de febrero de 2007, http://www.iniciativacid.org/…

ACAN-EFE, La producción de azúcar en Nicaragua es la mayor de los últimos diez años, 22 de febrero de 2007

Oscar René Vargas, El CAFTA y la agricultura, edición digital de El Nuevo Diario, 22 de febrero de 2007, http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/…

Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited: www.nicaraguasugar.com

Liga Agrícola Industrial de la Caña de Azúcar: www.laica.co.cr

Comissão Pastoral da Terra - Rua Esperanto, 490 - Recife, BRASIL - Tel. / Fax: 55-81-3231-4445 - Brésil - www.cptpe.org.br - cptpe (@) terra.com.br

Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos - Rua Castro Alves, 945 - São Paulo, SP, BRAZIL - Tel.: 011 3271 1237/3275 4789 - Fax.: 011 3271 4878 - Brésil - www.social.org.br - rede (@) social.org.br

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