Breakthrough in battle against fatal global epidemic affecting agricultural workers

16 August 2015

The Costa Rican government have recently announced new regulations that will help protect workers from Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional Causes (CKDnT). The regulations – the first CKDnT-specific labour protection proposed by a government in Central America – will seek to combat the epidemic by focusing on heat stress and dehydration, requiring all companies employing workers in tropical conditions to provide ample water, rest and shade.

The fatal rise of Chronic Kidney Disease in Central America

Fairfood has been working to expose the fatal rise of the CKDnT epidemic among sugarcane workers in Central America since January 2013, and published a report ‘Give them a break, the bitter consequences of poor working conditions in the Central American sugarcane industry’ in July 2015. The disease is characterised by an increasing failure of kidney functions, ultimately resulting in the death of the patient if left untreated. Three of the most likely causes of CKDnT are dehydration, heat stress and exposure to agrochemicals. A 2012 study published by the Boston University School of Public Health revealed that 20,000 workers in Central America have already died from this disease and signaled similar cases in Sri Lanka, India and Egypt.

Cooperation leads to Costa Rican breakthrough

Costa Rica’s new regulation, which was issued by presidential decree and made public on 25 July, is based on a multi-party consensus via the Council on Occupational Health (Consejo de Salud Ocupacional, CSO) and the Costa Rican Department of Social Insurance (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, CCSS).

A number of Fairfood’s partners played a role in bringing about these regulations. Olman Chinchilla from the Costa Rican trade union federation Central del Movimiento de Trabajadores (CMTC), which has received capacity training from Fairfood, gave advice to the Costa Rican government as a member of the CSO. But also SALTRA (a university-based programme on work and health) and La Isla Foundation (LIF) have been in talks with the Costa Rican Ministry of Labour and the CSO over the last year advocating the need for the government to address heat stress in their labour legislation.

In April 2015, Fairfood, together with CMTC, SALTRA and LIF, had several meetings with Costa Rican government institutions, such as the CSO and CCSS, represented by Dr Roy Wong, among others, a government epidemiologist who has led the official research for the government into CKDnT.

Building on Costa Rican victory to combat CKDnT worldwide

Fairfood hopes that other Central American governments and sugarcane mills (ingenios) will follow Costa Rica’s example in ending the deadly CKDnT epidemic. No further workers should have to die from a disease that is preventable. LIF is already making progress with an intervention programme in El Salvador, working together with El Angel Sugar Mill, an influential industry player. Lieneke Wieringa, Advocacy Manager at Fairfood, said, “This is a positive example of how governments can play a role in solving this pressing health issue. However, this is just a start and other governments and companies need to follow suit in implementing the solutions that are already out there.”

If you would like to know more about the CKDnT epidemic, visit our sugarcane project page, or you can make a donation to ensure Central American workers are protected from this disease.

Interview with La Isla Foundation co-founder Jason Glaser

For more in-depth information about CKDnT, the work of La Isla Foundation and the fight in Central America to protect worker’s rights, read our interview with La Isla Foundation co-founder Jason Glaser.