Under Cane – Deaths behind sugar production in Central America

16 October 2015

In the last decade, 20,000 agricultural workers have died from Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional Causes (CKDnT). The majority of these victims work in sugarcane production. The documentary Under Cane by filmmaker Ed Kashi shows how harsh the working conditions of sugarcane workers are and the devastating effect of this fatal kidney disease.

Under Cane is a documentary that makes for intense viewing, but unfortunately this is the reality: CKDnT is reaching epidemic proportions in the Central American sugarcane industry and costs thousands of lives per year. This brutal reality cannot be ignored any longer.

We all consume sugar
Sugarcane is used in many, many products, not only in the food products you would think of like raw sugar, chocolate and soda, but also in bread, salad dressings, rum and most processed foods. Moreover, it is also used to create biodegradable plastics, medication and fuel. We all use tons of sugar on a daily basis and we are all, therefore, responsible the issues behind our sugar.

Solutions are simple
This sounds harsh and demotivating. But wait, there’s hope! As is the case with most labour issues in our food chain, change is possible and sometimes even very simple! In the case of CKDnT, companies can easily improve working conditions, thus preventing new cases of the deadly kidney disease, by enforcing the following simple changes:

  • Better access to sufficient, clean drinking water;
  • Better access to shade;
  • More regular breaks;
  • Reduced working hours, thus decreasing physical strain.

Furthermore, workers’ rights to organise and collectively bargain are essential to ensure successful implementation and monitoring.

How to create change?
We all have a role to play in creating a fair food supply chain.

Fairfood works together with food brands, supermarkets and governments to tackle the extreme inequalities that exist in our food chain;

Governments should create the regulatory landscape that ensures a safe and healthy work environment for all, thus enabling workers to stand up for their rights;

Food brands and supermarkets should use their power to improve the working conditions in their supply chains and ensure the right to collective bargaining and association;

As a consumer you can contribute by shopping consciously and becoming a member of our supporter community.

Sugarcane project
In our Sugarcane project we are working, together with CNV Internationaal and ICAES to ensure safe and healthy working conditions in Central America, thus preventing workers from contracting CKDnT and ensuring that workers are able to stand up for the rights. We are talking to Central American and European governments, sugarcane mills in Central America and food and beverage companies – like Diageo and Bacardi – who source their sugarcane from Central America. We also work together with local NGOs, labour confederations and research institutes on the ground in order to create positive change in the industry.

Want to learn more? Watch our Animation Video ‘What’s on your plate – the story of your food’.