The backbreaking labor in Nicaragua’s sugar cane fields is fueling a debate on who is responsible for workers’ health. Time and time again, corporations have prevailed and employees are left to live with debilitating diseases on their own.
In Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Americas, workers spend up to 14 hours a day chopping down heavy stalks of cane, earning a meager 86 cents per ton. Although workers push on through the six-month long harvest season, and in 98 degree heat, many are falling ill with chronic kidney disease.
In the past two decades alone, an estimated 20,000 people have died from chronic kidney disease in Central America.
La Isla Foundation, an international research and policy organization, has stepped in. In partnership with universities and lawyers, the foundation is currently researching the links between chronic kidney disease, labor conditions, and agrochemicals used at Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), the largest sugar mill in Nicaragua.
“I was healthy when I started working for the company and sick when they got rid of me...Every family here has lost someone, the work is making us sick, but there are no alternatives...We are all dying from it, it’s a total epidemic,” explained Walter, a 32-year-old who works alongside 13 of his relatives in the sugar cane fields of ISA.
In Walter’s hometown, 70 percent of men have been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and 2,800 to 3,500 have died in the past decade. The majority of these men worked on the sugar cane plantation in Chichigalpa, earning the town a grim nickname: “La isla de las viudas,” or “The island of widows.
News of the plight of sugar cane workers in Nicaragua is spreading fast. In January of this year, National Geographic, released a moving documentary, capturing the lives of those affected by the disease. However, companies like ISA have not taken responsibility for the health costs endured by their previous workers, the growing number of widows, or for improving their working conditions.
Prior to last year’s harvest season at ISA, Walter met with a company doctor to ensure he was fit for the grueling work. When his blood test revealed the beginning of kidney dysfunction, Walter was immediately dismissed, despite 11 years with the plantation. The doctor did not provide a follow-up exam, leaving Walter on his own to face the lethal condition.
Without other job opportunities, many sick workers in Chichigalpa continue to work under ISA subcontractors, using fake IDs.
“Almost all 50 cutters on my team have the disease and are using false IDs,” Walter said. “Of course the company knows, they see us working in the fields. The ‘ghost teams’ are an open secret.”
Although the root cause of chronic kidney disease is undetermined, research featured in MEDICC review, has linked the disease to occupational conditions such as prolonged exposure to heat and dehydration.
In Nicaragua, the national health care system recognizes the disease as occupational. However, in order to qualify for disability or specialist care, a worker must prove they contracted the disease while working.
Unfortunately for Walter, and other sugar cane workers, ISA does not provide medical records following the company doctor’s diagnosis.
“The company cannot compensate for something that it has not caused,” an ISA spokesman told The Guardian. Instead, the company discussed its corporate social responsibility model including impressive donations to local medical facilities, schools and various infrastructure projects.
However, the solution to this problem goes far beyond corporate social responsibility. An overall lack of alternative job opportunities results in workers who are less likely to complain about conditions, are unable to shift jobs when it is affecting their health, and often migrate from rural to urban areas. This leaves companies with the upper hand and little incentive to meet workers needs.
At the Cerro Rico mine in Bolivia, or “the mountain that eats men”, the situation is not much different. There are 15,000 miners who work in the mountain’s dangerous, high altitude and dark tunnels, facing the risk of death everyday.
Silicosis, an incurable lung disease, has become an inevitable fate for workers in the Cerro Rico mine. Much like the plight of cane cutters in Nicaragua, workers continue to enter the mine everyday in order to support their families.
After years of slave-like labor, management over the mine was put into the hands of several mining cooperatives, typically owned by families or small groups. Despite having a strong political presence, the majority of the employees have little to no say in its operation. The result has been a complete breakdown of working conditions. Without regulation, the basic safety measures have disappeared, and children as young as 6 have been reported working in the mine.
Alongside La Isla Foundation, there are other organizations such as the International Labor Rights Forum, addressing the ability of workers, like those in the Cerro Rico mine, to advocate for better working conditions.
Yet a common thread in both these stories is the lack of decent job alternatives. The International Labor Organization (ILO) is tackling this deficit through programs that grow individuals’ skill sets for employability as well as support vulnerable populations in rural entrepreneurship ventures. In Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, ILO provided training for 2,900 female entrepreneurs. The result? One new business had been created for every two participants.
Taking these various strategies into account, addressing corporate irresponsibility may be most effective through a comprehensive approach. Empowering miners and sugar cane workers alike with alternate job opportunities, scientific knowledge, and a platform for advocacy will get them one step closer to a dignified livelihood they deserve.
Miners in Bolivia. Photo: Jenny Mealing (Flickr)