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"As disturbing details of a deadly disease affecting
sugarcane workers become more widely known, we ask how much responsibility
drinks groups are prepared to shoulder."
PR damage control departments of some of the world’s
largest rum producers have been on emergency standby in recent months as
details of a mysterious, and indeed extremely worrying, aspect of the industry
spread through international media.In the US, bar owners poured bottles of rum
down the gutter in protest at what they saw as the reluctance of distillers to
combat chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) among Central
and Latin American sugarcane workers.
Third sector advocates also named and
shamed producers they believe have shirked responsibility in combating the
‘epidemic’, which has claimed the lives of thousands of cane cutters and
planters in the last decade.CKDnT is not new, but discussions over its
prevalence in the sugarcane industry have resurfaced once again. The disease
progressively damages the kidneys, often leading to kidney failure and even
death. While there has historically been much uncertainty over the causes of
CKDnT, numerous studies have cited poor working conditions experienced by
agricultural workers in hot and humid countries as primary catalysts.
report by advocacy group Fairfood International, Dutch trade union CNV
Internationaal and the Central American Institute for Social Studies,
called Give Them a Break, upholds this view. The paper features collaborative
field research by the three organisations linking CKDnT with occupational
hardships experienced by sugarcane plantation workers in Guatemala and
These include long working days, few shaded
breaks, strenuous labor and insufficient access to potable water. The report
claims that the “majority” of poor cane cutters work more than 10 hours a day,
often seven days a week.
“Due to these conditions many workers suffer
from heat stress and dehydration,” says Lieneke Wieringa, advocacy manager at
Fairfood International. “This contributes to the contraction of CKDnT. Some
communities are so heavily affected by the disease that they are now primarily
populated by widows.”
The report calls on multinational drinks
groups, namely Bacardi and Diageo, to improve conditions for workers employed
by the sugar plantations they source from, and criticised the firms for
allegedly “showing reluctance” to address the issue head on. “We know that at
the time of publishing our report, the policies and practices of Bacardi and
Diageo were insufficient to properly address the issue,” continues Wieringa.
“Moreover, we know that sugar companies in Central America generally speaking
are aware of the problem. Nevertheless, the large majority of them still do not
guarantee decent working conditions to their workers that prevent them from
Give Them a Break outlines a number of ways in which
sugarcane producers, traders, brand-owning companies and governments can
implement positive change and tackle the problem. For Wieringa, the previous
uncertainty around the cause of CKDnT is “no excuse to sit back and not act”.
Bacardi has slammed the report for what it has called “inaccuracies”. In a
statement, the group acknowledged that while there are a number of “systemic”
issues related to the industry, it has developed its sugarcane sourcing
strategy in collaboration with “industry experts”. In addition, the
Bermuda-based firm said it supports Bonsucro – a global non-profit organization
set up to improve the sustainability of the sugarcane industry. Bacardi said
that in supporting Bonsucro with financial resources and participation of
senior management, it is aiming to “tackle all the diverse issues in the
sugarcane industry, rather than focusing on single issue or localized
group also said it does not buy any sugarcane product from Nicaragua, as claimed
by Fairfood, but admitted it does work with two Guatemalan organizations, which
have “committed to improving their practices”. Bacardi added that it has, “on
occasion”, switched suppliers that have not shown any willingness to take
sustainability issues seriously.
takes the unsubstantiated Fairfood International allegations made about its
supply chain and human rights initiatives seriously as the company operates in
full compliance with all trade regulations and laws in each of the countries it
does business in,” a spokesperson said. In response, Fairfood said that at the
time its report was published, it believed the information included was
correct, adding that Bacardi did not dispute it sourced cane products from
Nicaragua when given the opportunity.
which has also been accused of running a “specific risk” by not tackling
CKDnT-related issues in its sugarcane supply chains, said it encourages cane
producers to conduct routine risk assessment and “continually” improve health
and safety standards. However, a spokesperson for the group ultimately assigned
responsibility to its suppliers.
said: “Like many other global companies across various sectors, we do not
source our molasses, which is a by-product of sugar, directly from farmers, but
via international brokers, however, we continue to work with our partners to
look closely at the standards on sugarcane farming in Central America.”
reports in UK and US media have sparked concern among the bartending community
with regards to CKDnT. A select few bartenders and bar owners recently
boycotted Flor de Caña rum over reports focusing on conditions at the Ingenio
San Antonio (ISA) sugar mill, where the brand’s parent company sources cane
materials. The United States Bartenders’ Guild subsequently said a number of
its members had “made contact” about the issue and that it had “opened a
dialogue” on CKDnT.
guild said it was “satisfied” Flor de Caña owner Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua
was willing to discuss the matter. USBG executive director Aaron Gregory Smith
added: “I am aware that more steps are being taken in the company’s supply
chain to seek advice on rolling out the existing recommendations to address the
disease in the field workforce.”
Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), owner of ISA, said it is “committed” to “doing
its part” and “finding solutions” for CKDnT. The group has contributed US$8m to
fund further research into causes of the disease, reduce rates of contraction
among its workforce, help sufferers secure an alternative source of income, and
find treatment for “end stage” patients. NSEL has also outlined a number of
“additional actions” to come into effect in 2016. “We believe that progress on
this epidemic can only be made as a result of co-operation from all parties,”
said Javier J. Arguello, chairman of the NSEL board.
Read More at http://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2016/01/rum-producers-address-conditions-for-workers/