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The majority of sugar workers come from the northeastern states and the Valley of Jequitinhonha, Minas Gerais.   In general, when they migrate, they travel clandestinely and are subjected to conditions analogous to slavery. From 2004 to 2006, the Pastoral of Migrants registered 17 deaths that occurred from excessive work. Intensive sweat causes  loss of potassium and can lead to cardio-respiratory attacks. Other cases refer to occurrences of aneurysm, the breaking of cerebral veins.

Labor rights violations and death of sugarcane workers

Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva*

My little girl, orphan of the sugarcane, her father promised her a bicycle at the end of the 2005 harvest.   He died first.  She, still, didn't understand the meaning of death.  She continued dreaming and waiting for her father to come back (because he went to heaven, according to her mother), to show him that she had learned to pedal.

Since the last century, the region of Ribeirão Preto, in the state of São Paulo, has been known as one of the most developed of the country. Principally, coffee was responsible for the production of great wealth.  At the beginning of the 1960s, sugarcane and ethanol factories began to appear, whose expansion of production, throughout these past decades, has placed this region at the highest ranking of the Brazilian economy. In the last few years, ethanol has been seen as an alternative to solve future energy problems surging from a scarcity of global hydrocarbon reserves. Large companies such as Microsoft and Google have already shown interest in investing in this kind of business, which places Brazil as one of the most competitive contry in the world in ethanol production.   According to UNICA (Union of Sugarcane Workers of the State of São Paulo), in 2006, 19 new factories will be installed in the state, which corresponds to the production of millions of hectares of sugarcane.

            At the same time, the largest processor of sugar in the world – COSAN S.A. Industry and Commerce – will invest US$ 400 million in the sugar-based ethanol sector over the next few years, increasing the giant number of 50 million tons milled per year.   This company, which combines national and foreign capital, obtained large profits in 2005, because of the rise in its stock on the financial market to the tune of 132%. (Folha de S. Paulo, Dinheiro, B10, 24 March, 2006)

For the traveler who zooms down the highways of São Paulo, after the city of Campinas, in any direction, the impression that she will have will be that she is in the middle of a gigantic sugarcane field.   The objectified history of this region – characterized by antiquated coffee plantations, by the houses of settlers and colonizers, by the multicolored plantations of corn, cotton, peanuts, beans, beyond the grasses, the local roads, the forest reserves, and small alleyways – is headed towards disappearing, giving way to the monochrome of sugarcane fields, except for the areas occupied by orange groves.   During the months between April and November, even the stars appear blackened by gigantic clouds of smoke produced by the burning of sugarcane, a predatory practice on the environment and on the health of the rural and urban populations that live there. According to a recent report, burned areas have increased more than 1000% during harvest in the region of Ribeirão Preto.   This fact has provoked various health effects on the people of the city, excluding the fact that there is an almost 50% increase of the number of patients with respiratory problems (Folha de S. Paulo, Folha Ribeirão, C1, 28 March, 2006). The gases expelled by the soot of burned sugarcane are carbons, nitrogens (above all nitrogen monoxide and dioxide), and sulfers (such as sulfer monoxide and dioxide).   Some of these gases head to the atmosphere and may mix with water, generating nitrous and sulfuric acids which, in levels of large accumulation, may cause acid rain, which harms the environment.   Beyond these gases, there has been the formation of various hydrocarbons and odors containing benzene and similar substances, which are very dangerous to health. (Zampernini, 1997; Allen et al., 2004; Rocha &Franco, 2003; Oppenheimer et al., 2004)

          Despite innumerable denunciations, including by the Public Ministry, the burnings continue, sheltered by State Law N. 11.241/2002, contrary to the previous law, which foresaw the end of this predatory practice on the environment and people's health, towards establishing a percentage increase in the elimination of sugarcane burnings from one to five years in mechanized areas.   In mechanized areas with a slope larger than 12% and an area less than 150 hectares, the final time period for the elimination of burning is by the year 2031.   According to this law, the mechanized area of this region is about 30%. 

Over the past few years, the wealth produced by sugar and alcohol agribusiness has been exposed through agricultural shows, fairs in Ribeirão Preto that aim at revealing a “modern” Brazil, technologically advanced, whose agriculture is produced only through machines.  Nevertheless, there is another reality behind the curtains of this show: an invisible world, hidden among the sugarcane fields and orange groves that make up the gigantic production of this region: violation of workers rights.

The majority of sugar workers are from the northeast and the Valley of Jequitinhonha, Minas Gerais. When they migrate, travel clandestinely and are subjected to conditions analogous to slavery, according to the denunciations of the Public Prosecutor, the Ministry of Labor, and the Pastoral of Migrants.  From 2004 to 2006, the Pastoral of Migrants registered 17 deaths that occurred from excessive work. According to medical reports, intensive sweat causes the loss of potassium, and can lead to cardio respiratory attacks. Other cases refer to occurrences of aneurysm, the breaking of cerebral veins.

News of these deaths gained space in the local, regional, and even in international media outlets.  These denunciations, initially sent to the Public Ministry, called attention to the General Attorney's office of São Paulo, of the Brazilian Platform for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Federal Prosecutor of Citizen's Rights (PGR/MPF) – who organized two public assemblies in the city of Ribeirão Preto during the month of October, 2005 – as well as the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo, represented by the Commission of Agriculture and Cattle, which is responsible for the organization of the third public assembly in the city of São Paulo, in December 2005.   In 2006, the Public Ministry of Labor carried out various assemblies with the intent of discussing the end to violations of labor rights.  

The deaths are the tip of the iceberg of a giant process of exploitation, in which it is not only the labor force that is consumed, but also the very life of the worker.  Historically, this system of exploitation maintains strong similarities with the events that occurred in England during the 19th century, when at manufacturing plants, in virtue of the extraction of the highest absolute worth, work hours were extended to 18 hours per day, causing many workers to die.

In various studies that have already been published, we can recognize that this fact was always associated with an offer of a large workforce that had come from the poorest areas of the country, and in line with the historical conditions that had defined these workers as “disqualified” and “unworthy,” values that would enter into the determination of the price of labor. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a process of capitalist accumulation in various historical periods, in various countries. Currently, so-called illegal immigration of workers from poor areas towards rich areas is nothing more than the other side of the coin.  In reality, illegality is a method of lowering the cost of labor, as a result of which immigrants cannot have access to social and workers' rights, and are considered “non-citizens,” "undocumented" people, obliged to live in hiding, in fear of deportation, or being thrown in jail as criminals, as various research attests about the issue of international migration in today's world.   

            In the sugarcane fiels, each worker needs to cut 10 tons of sugarcane per day. In some factories, there is indication of drug use, such as marijuana and crack, to increase the capacity of work during the cut.  The phrase "It doesn't help to go to the fields with a clean face" reflects the cruelty and brutality of these working conditions. Marijuana, according to some workers, alleviates arm pain. When it comes to crack, this is a stimulant, and therefore its use increases productivity.

During the 1980s, the average productivity demanded of the workers was 5 to 8 tons of cut sugarcane per day; in 1990, it rose to 8 to 9 tons; in the year 2000 it increased to 10 tons, and in 2004 to 12 to 15 tons per day.  Nonetheless, this amount is in reality higher, since the productivity is based on random calculations. The cane is weighed at the factory, and therefore the control of this operation is out of the hands of the workers, who, in many cases, feel cheated.   

            Another problem the workers face is the lack of nutrition, aggravated by excessive force, which contributes to the increase in accidents at work, in addition to the weakening of the respiratory system, back and spinal pain, tendonitis, and cramps produced by the loss of potassium through sweat.  The soot of burned sugarcane contains venomous gases, and, according to what is being reported by the Public Prosecutor, the factories utilize agrochemicals that speed up the maturation of the cane barely three weeks before it is cut.   These products are highly damaging to health.

During public assemblies, many reports of workers confirmed the suffering they face during work, the bruises on their bodies, vomiting, fainting, and even deaths that have occurred in 17 cases.  Some mentioned their work schedules which reach up to 18 hours per day.

While these human rights violations continue, the international market places Brazil at the highest level of success in agribusiness.  This is the paradox of the two worlds of contemporary society. 


* Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva is a professor at the Geography Depatment at the State University of São Paulo.