This World Kidney Day we celebrate the lives of sugarcane workers

12 March 2015

Felix Santo Calero was working in the field on a sugar mill in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, when he got ill with the mysterious Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional Causes (CKDnT). He is not the only one; roughly half the adult male population in Chichigalpa – all sugarcane cutters – are suffering from the disease that causes the kidneys to gradually stop functioning, resulting in the painful death of the patients. Today, on World Kidney Day, let’s take a moment to celebrate the lives of these workers and pay tribute to the hard work they do. Let’s give honour to Felix and many workers who die at a young age due to CKDnT.

Photographer and video maker Ed Kashi has been documenting the CKDnT epidemic among sugarcane workers, and released a 13-minute film about the disease-struck sugarcane cutters in Nicaragua in order to expose the horrible working conditions they are subjected to and to put pressure on governments and companies to change their practices. In the film, Felix and some of his (former) co-workers together with their families talk about their work conditions and how this has resulted to not only spiralling poverty, but also death in their families. Tragically, Felix passed away 3 months after this film was made – he was 40 years old. You can watch the short film here:

Copyright: Talking Eyes Media

There are many stories of sugarcane cutters like Felix and other workers in the film, who become ill with CKDnT during their employment at the sugar mills in Chichigalpa and throughout Central America. At the moment, the average age of death in the Chichigalpa is 46 years; and younger people are getting sick every year. It is not without reason that the region is often referred to as the ‘Isle of Widows’ (Isla de las Viudas).

The workers are trapped in a difficult dilemma between their families’ needs and the disease: to keep on working in pain for as long as they can, or to stop working and not be able to provide for their families. Once the sick workers are diagnosed with CKDnT, they are often laid off from work and are left with no further job opportunities or benefits. Laid off workers are trapped in this vicious cycle of looking for employment, in spite of their illness, in order to support their families. They use fake IDs to find new employment in the same sugarcane companies with the identical horrible work conditions, because there are no other stable jobs in their region. In some cases, families have to send their children to work in order to sustain the family income. This makes the disease even more difficult to bear for the families involved and puts a lot of strain on the community.

Together with Nicaraguan partner La Isla Foundation (LIF), Fairfood International is working closely with workers to prevent new cases of CKDnT in the Nicaraguan sugarcane industry as part of our ‘Treat Them Sweet’ campaign. In 2014, we found that the conditions under which the sugarcane cutters in Nicaragua are working are awful in itself, but even worse, many of these conditions are highlighted by Boston University and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) as part of the risk factors that are causing CKDnT. This unhealthy work is at the basis of many products that end up in the food and drinks we consume such as sodas, rum and cookies. This is why we are engaging with major companies sourcing sugarcane products and other sugarcane-based value added products to determine how to best address the above-mentioned issues.

Our work is urgent. We need to put a stop to the many deaths and incidences of CKDnT, and push for stringent policies that will promote safe and healthy work conditions. We will put pressure on major international companies who source sugar and molasses from Central American sugarcane companies to ensure that safe and healthy work conditions are in place in order to prevent new cases of CKDnT. This is a tough fight as at the moment companies are denying all responsibility, but we are sure that over time we will be able to change this.

As Ed Kashi stresses in an interview with National Geographic: awareness can help “put pressure on the government and the sugarcane companies”, so that they will try to be part of the solution. Without this, it is impossible to change to the situation that the sugarcane cutters are in.

Let’s not forget about the people who are suffering as we speak. Especially today, on World Kidney Day. Let us pay tribute to these workers and celebrate their lives, even if it is by small gestures such as sharing the film Ed Kashi made. You can also push our donate button and contribute to our work in protecting workers in Central America.

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We are building up case files to unleash public campaigns aimed at the sugar mills, important sugarcane distributors, brand owning companies as well as the Central American Governments. As soon as we can go public, we will ask your support in petitions, events, and other campaigning occasions. To stay up-to-date on this, please join our mailinglist.

Click here to read more about our work in Latin America and our Occupational Safe and Healthy Work Conditions Program.