Working today with the hope of a brighter future
A story I did for the Vancouver Sun from Colombia last year.
Working today with the hope of a brighter future; Sugar cane cutters and their families find themselves in a constant struggle to survive
Dawn Paley. The Vancouver Sun. Vancouver, B.C.: Dec 26, 2008. pg. B.9
Christmas is a difficult time for the Hernandez family, and this season has been especially tough. Carlos, the family’s breadwinner, is a sugar-cane cutter, whose survival is tied to his ability to work hard and fast under the hot sun and hard rains in Colombia’s fertile Cauca Valley.
Carlos takes home about $250 a month, working a minimum of twelve hours a day, six days a week, cutting sugar cane. His day starts at 4 a.m., and he arrives home sometimes as late as 7 or 8 in the evening. Cane cutters are paid by the tonne, so the amount that Carlos earns each day depends on how much he can cut.
The evening I visited Carlos in the cane fields, he had cut about five tonnes of cane, for which he would eventually take home $16.75. “The cane is very thick, and when it’s thick, it’s difficult to do
the job,” he said.
The reason the cane is so thick is the same reason that this Christmas is an especially tough one for the Hernandez family: the cane cutters staged a 58-day work stoppage, which began on Sept. 15 and ended in mid-November. None of the 12,680 striking workers were paid during the strike, and they’re now left to deal with the overgrown sugar cane that wasn’t cut on schedule.
The Hernandez family lives in a modest brick house in Pradera, a municipality in the heart of the sugar-cane district.
Pradera is close enough to the cane fields that when the sugar cane is burned in preparation for cutting, the smoke and dust thicken the air.
Like many families dependent on sugar cane, the Hernandezes put in long days to get by, and like families everywhere, they dream of a future when their three children can fulfil their full potential.
Some days, these dreams seem particularly far from the family’s daily reality.
The three Hernandez kids share a small bedroom, and the family home is outfitted with a single sink. After paying their electricity, water, gas, and telephone bills, the family of five is left with about
$45 a week for groceries and other expenses.
Miriam Micolta Hernandez, Carlos’ wife, wakes up every day at 3 in the morning to prepare breakfast and a lunch for her husband. When he leaves to catch the bus to work at 5, Miriam doesn’t
go back to sleep. Instead, she wakes up her children, and accompanies them to school by 6.
While the children are at school, Miriam works at home, cleaning up after the family, washing clothes by hand, buying food at the market, and preparing a hot lunch for the kids.
“I usually prepare them hot rice for lunch,” Miriam said. “In reality, what we can offer to our children is very little.” Fruit is beyond their means, and a dish with meat is a rarity.
Miriam is enrolled in courses at the local high school, where she studies every evening from 7 until 9:30 in an effort to complete her high school. She dropped out at the age of 15 to start working to support her parents, and now she attends the night courses with a group of women who are married to sugar-cane cutters.
“Sometimes we go to class and the teacher is explaining something, and we start to drift off and fall asleep, and the teacher wakes us up. We laugh about it together,” she said.
After class, she does a little bit more around the house, and usually gets to bed at around 11 or 12. “That’s our daily routine.”
Colombia exports about half of the two million tonnes of sugar produced in the country each year, putting the country among the world’s top 10 sugar exporters. According to the Canadian Sugar Institute, Colombian sugar represents 10 percent of all sugar sold on the retail market in Canada.
A controversial Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia, which has been signed but not yet ratified, could see sugar imports from Colombia increase even more. Sugar cane is also increasingly used for the production of biofuels.
Landscapes in the Cauca Valley are dominated by bright green cane stalks, in plantations that run for kilometers.
“In the entire Cauca Valley, there are 400,000 hectares of arable land, of which 240,000 hectares are sown with cane,” said Mario Perez, a professor of environmental economics at Valle University.
SUGAR AND SLAVERY
The sugar sector in Colombia is highly subsidized, both by domestic consumers, who pay a higher price for sugar than what it’s worth on the world market, as well as by the Colombian state.
Asocana, a lobby group of Colombia’s sugar producers, claims that in addition to being a major employer in the region, producers have put more than $3.5 million into education, recreation and
cultural activities for their workers, as well as investing in housing. But many feel that they don’t do enough.
“I am not against the idea that the government protects industry. The entire world does that,” Perez said. “But what I don’t agree with is that the subsidies that are given to the sector do not
translate into social responsibility … towards the workers.”
Like the Hernandez family, the majority of sugar cane cutters are Afro-Colombians, but there are also cane cutters from indigenous and Mestizo (Metis) backgrounds. Many contemporary observers of the sugar industry draw close links between slavery and today’s cane workers.
In 1835, there were more than 21,500 people counted as slaves in the Cauca region, which then included all of the area currently used for sugar cane production. The number of slaves in Cauca decreased from about 10 per cent of the population in 1835 to 3.3 per cent by 1851, and slavery was officially abolished in 1852.
“The same families that dominated the Cauca Valley during the last 400 years continue to exercise their power here,” said Alberto Bejarano, an assistant to opposition Senator Alexander Lopez.
On the other hand, “the workers [in the sugar industry] today are the descendants of yesterday’s slaves.”
The conditions of the cane cutters today “could even be worse than in the times of slavery, because one has to remember that the large landowners gave to their slaves a roof over their heads and something to eat. Today, even that isn’t the case,” said Mario Valencia, an advisor to a newly formed cane-cutters’ union.
After more than two years of having their petitions, letters, and requests to Asocana fall on deaf ears, the sugar-cane cutters in the Cauca Valley decided to go on strike. Not only did they leave the cane fields, but they peacefully blockaded eight of the region’s sugar mills, slowing production almost to a halt.
Their demands were to earn a better wage, to be provided with proper housing and the tools that they need to carry out their work. All of these petitions lead to one central demand, which is to be directly employed by the sugar mills. Currently, the majority of cane cutters are employed as “associates” through workers’ cooperatives.
“About 80 to 90 per cent of the time I cut cane, and on my days off, or when I have time off, I have to do everything relating to paper work, social security benefits, we have a bus that I look after,” said Abel Oveido, the president of a cane cutters’ co-operative. “It’s basically like running a company, a small company.”
A recent study by researchers at Valle University shows that close to half of a cane cutter’s earnings accrue to his cooperative, in order to pay health costs, social security, and other benefits.
This is compared to the eight per cent that employees directly contracted by their employers would pay on the same wage. When a worker is directly employed by a company, the employer pays an average of 25 per cent in addition to the workers salary into social security for employees. But employers that have a third party relationship to their workers through a cooperative don’t pay any benefits at all.
“The demands that these workers are making, in essence, go back to colonial times: that they not be robbed, that they not be murdered, that they be recognized as workers of the sugar mills so that their labour conditions will improve,” Valencia said.
TAKING A STAND
During the strike, the attorney-general of Colombia said he had heard testimony that the men on strike were infiltrated by members of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The
accusations of infiltration by guerrilla forces allowed the national government to classify the strike as a matter of public order instead of as a labour conflict. During the strike, a congressional commission visited the workers and determined that the strike was indeed a labour conflict.
Four cane cutters and two assistants have had charges pressed against them, but they were not arrested because a lower court judge determined that they don’t present a danger to society.
“We have never had links with and at no time did we have meetings with illegal armed groups,” said Jose Oney Valencia Llanos, one of the accused, when I interviewed him in the town of El Placer.
The strike ended after the companies agreed to negotiate with the workers. On a political level, the strike brought national and international attention to the difficulties faced by sugar-cane cutters
in Colombia, but in terms of the deals signed, relatively little was gained.
According to the new contracts, workers can expect an increase in pay of about 30 cents a tonne, weekly pay cheques instead of twice monthly, and a better supply of machetes and sharpeners.
“The strike was part of a process, and we will continue to organize with the goal of achieving direct contracts with the companies,” said Gabriel Lopez, a tall, lanky cane cutter with 14 years in the fields behind him.
“It was chaos,” said Miriam, describing her family’s situation during the strike. While the men were blockading the sugar mills, the women collected rice, beans and potatoes to cook for the men
on the picket lines, while at the same time trying to keep things running in their homes. Recovering financially from the strike has been challenging, but Miriam hopes that things will improve.
In the meantime, the Christmas season remains a bittersweet time for the Hernandez family. Carlos will work half a day on Christmas Eve, and return back to the cane fields on Boxing Day. “We don’t do too much on Christmas day,” said Miriam. “It’s the money factor. During the Christmas season, there are many expenses, and we don’t have enough to cover those expenses.”
The family prays together on Christmas, and if there is enough money to scrape together a meal to share together, they do.
“Our children never have presents for Christmas,” she said. Each year, a couple of weeks before Christmas Day, her children start asking if they will receive a present. “No dear, because the Son of God is very poor,” is her answer, year in and year out. “They know that the Son of God is the father who works and simply doesn’t have the money to buy them a gift.”
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Dawn Paley is a student in UBC’s Master of Journalism program. She travelled to Colombia to report on the situation of the sugar-cane workers. Her trip to Colombia was partially funded by the
Canadian Labour Congress.
ONLINE: See a photo gallery to go with Dawn Paley’s story on Colombia at vancouversun.com
Credit: Dawn Paley; Special to the Sun
Subjects: Sugar industry, Secondary schools, Biodiesel fuels
Author(s): Dawn Paley
Document types: News
Dateline: PRADERA, Colombia
Section: Canada & World
Publication title: The Vancouver Sun. Vancouver, B.C.: Dec 26, 2008. pg. B.9
Source type: Newspaper