Sugar: labour exploitation in the 21st century

Three articles highlight the continuing exploitation of labour in the global sugar industry. In The Bitter Aftertaste of Sugar, Srishti Agnihotri focuses on migrant workers in Marathwada in India. She argues that “facing the double discrimination of caste and poverty (sometimes coupled with migrant status), the workers…are open to considerable exploitation, with some of them narrating incidents of severe beatings, being underpaid and overworked”. In Sweatshop Sugar: Labour Exploitation in South Africa’s Cane Fields, Jason Hickel writes about the pernicious effects of South Africa’s sugar mills outsourcing cane supply as “small farmers can avoid unions, slip through the cracks of regulatory mechanisms, and usually don’t provide workers with fringe benefits like clinics and ARVs [anti-retroviral drugs]”. He calls this the ‘Walmartisation’ of sugar. Finally, in Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss? Technology, Toil and Tension in the Agrofuel Frontier, Brian Garvey, David Tyfield and Leonardo Freire de Mello turn our attention to Brazil.  They argue that in Raizen’s plantations (the joint venture between Shell and Cosan) “[cane] cutters complain that while breaks, protective equipment and safety measures have improved, the reduction in the volume of raw cane cut manually means that those still tied to the pay-by-production strategy have endured a significant fall in annual income”. The authors also report use of outsourcing.  The São Martins group of Petrobras and the São Joao group of Cargill together employ around 4,500 workers, but in 2013 the authors found that 1,860 were replaced during the year as “entire teams were dismissed for reasons of ‘cost cutting’ and replaced by contracted teams from distant states the following day”. On lesson of these studies, then, is that the distribution of wealth in the global sugar industry is fundamentally shaped by the capital-labour relation, just as it was in the era of colonial slavery.


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