ISA sugar mill linked to kidney disease
Earlier this month the Guardian reported that at least 20,000 people were estimated to have died of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in Central America in the past two decades – most of them sugar cane workers along the Pacific coast.
There is a growing scientific view that CKD is linked to harsh work conditions, particularly long hours exposed to sun without sufficient shade, rest and water.
The Guardian article focused on workers suffering from the disease who had worked or still worked at Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), Nicaragua’s oldest and largest sugar mill, owned by Grupo Pellas.
Poor working conditions
ISA stated that its field hands work on average six hours a day, and rest for 20 minutes every hour under shade to minimise the risk of heat stress with supervisors ensuring that everyone drinks 1.6 litres of water every hour. ISA said in cases of heat stress or injury, a mobile health clinic was always on site.
But former and current ISA workers interviewed by the Guardian described very different conditions. They said that during the harvest, cane cutters worked for eight to 14 hours daily in temperatures often reaching 38C. They usually work a six or seven day week, cutting on average 7 tonnes of sugar cane every day.
ISA workers said that they rarely rested as they were paid a piece rate of about 23 cordobas (55p) for a tonne of cane, and claimed that supervisors pressured them to meet quotas. Palm trees offered limited shade and many complained that they were given water that smells of chemicals.
During the last harvest, company representatives took researchers from La Isla to a field where the work conditions appeared acceptable. However, on two unaccompanied visits, undercover researchers said they found no evidence of shade, regular breaks, adequate water, mobile health clinics or protective clothing. Cutters told the Guardian that the company brings out the mobile clinics and shade tents only for government inspectors, the press and researchers.
The company's sugar cane fields are based around the municipality of Chichigalpa, where chronic kidney disease is responsible for almost half of male deaths in the last 10 years. Sick men hasten their deaths by continuing to work in secret to support their families.
No access to health care
Many of the workers from ISA reported that they did not qualify for benefits as the company did not give sick workers a copy of their medical records.
ISA claimed that instead it provided “food stipends and subsidised medicine...for sick ex-workers, and healthcare and education for current workers and families as part of its social corporate responsibility policies.”
Outside the sugar plantations, there are very few jobs in Chichigalpa. Many CKD sufferers use fake ID to join “ghost teams” of workers cutting cane for an ISA subcontractor.
Several sugar cane cutters, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some subcontractors recruited sick and under-age workers to meet workforce demands. La Isla Foundation, a local human rights and public health group, said its researchers had found hundreds of sick workers employed by subcontractors on the current harvest.
“Almost all 50 cutters in my team have the disease and are using false IDs. Of course the company knows, they see us working in the fields … the ghost teams are an open secret,” said one of the ghost workers.
ISA said the allegations were false: “There is no possibility that there is a sick person or a minor. We have a zero tolerance policy in this regard.”
ISA did not accept there is a connection between CKD and working conditions on its plantations.
The company quoted a review of scientific literature on CKD carried out in 2010 by Boston University (BU) which claimed there was “no evidence whatsoever that current labour practices or chemicals used by ISA now or in the past are generally accepted causes of CKD”.
But Dr Daniel Brooks, who lead the BU study – which was funded by ISA – said these interpretations did not reflect their findings: “It would be incorrect to interpret the report as stating that working in sugar-cane does not cause CKD.”
This story has been added to our corporate database. The database powers all our live product guides, giving the score for each company on our rankings tables. Find out more about how we rate companies.
Ethical Consumer on Google+