No Water, No Toilet, US$ 6 a Day: The Life of a Brazilian Sugarcane Cutter

Sugarcane cutter in Brazil The mobile group of inspectors from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment (Ministério do Trabalho e Emprego – MTE) rescued 284 cane cutters in Palmares, from the sugar plantations Barra D’Ouro and Poço, from Usina Vitória Agrocomercial Ltda, owned by José Bartolomeu de Almeida Melo, better known as Beto da Usina (Beto of the Plant). 

It happens that Melo, a politician from the PDT (Partido Democrático Trabalhista – Democratic Labor Party) is also the mayor-elect of Palmares, a town 120 kilometers from Recife, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.

The list of irregularities found by the inspectors is extensive. “The company has already been notified previously by the Regional Superintendent of Labor and Employment of Pernambuco (SRTE-PE) because of irregularities and has already received notification of the need to follow work laws through the Secretary of Work Inspection, but they still were not following the laws,” explained Jacqueline Carrijo, coordinator of the raid.

The raid was motivated by a request of the SRTE-PE, that had already conducted 37 inspections in the area, including some with flagrant, degrading work conditions. None of the 284 workers had equipment for personal protection. The employers supplied one glove only, and just to some workers.

“This is absurd, only one glove was offered, and it’s not even a pair. The rest of the equipment was not offered,” according to the coordinator. She even reported that the sugar mill is not supplying water. The workers themselves haul water from home in plastic, recyclable bottles, but it is usually gone by 11 am.

“The cane cutters tried to find co-workers who still had water, and when they could not get any, they would just drink stagnant, muddy water near the workline,” according to Carrijo. Toilets were not installed in the worklines of the cane field and the workers used the bushes for bathroom.

For the 229 rescued from Sugar Plantation Barra D’Ouro the day’s journey began at three in the morning, when they woke up to start preparing food, and only ended after 6 pm. The bus which was transporting the cane cutters was in poor condition, it was not registered to drive around and it was driven by men without a driver’s license.

The break for rest was, at most, thirty minutes for lunch in the middle of the day. “The cane cutters were bringing the food in margarine containers, which are inadequate for food storage. They basically were eating pasta, rice and cassava flour. It’s just carbohydrates, without the necessary nutrients for someone doing work that is so exhausting,” said Carrijo.

The workers ate their meals on the ground, without any protection from the sun. 129 infractions were written up and six terms of closure against the Usina Vitória, for both the industrial park of the company and the workline. The cane cutters had started work at the beginning of October of this year.

The other 55 employees were working in the Engenho Poço and living in a village near the area, maintained by Romildo Brandão, the lessee of the sugar mill. According to Flávio Gondim, an advocate of worker’s rights, the houses were in a terrible state, facing the risk of collapse.

The work conditions for the cane cutters was the same as it was for the cane cutters of Engenho Barra D’Ouro, but the employees were in the area for a longer time. Some have 15 or 20 years without working papers. Twenty-seven infractions were drawn up against Romildo Brandão as were two terms of closure for the place.

The workers received 14.70 Brazilian reais (US$ 6.21) for every three tons of cut cane. In order to receive the minimum wage for a month, they were forced to cut around 3.5 tons per day. “In the conditions that they were in it was difficult to reach this amount,” added Carrijo.

The work lines are located in isolated places and, when the inspection happened at Engenho Barra D’Ouro, people were feeling sick. There was no ambulance or radio to call. “A worker was vomiting and another was very weak from having cut his foot, but, he continued working barefoot anyway.”

The area’s irregular terrain called the attention of the inspectors because it makes work harder for the cane cutters. Jacqueline Carrijo said that the land was very steep and that even the team of inspectors had difficulties getting around.

“Another factor that was damaging to the health of the workers was the type of sugar cane, which is entangled and planted in a spaced out way. The workers were cutting cane for a while and were having to hack many times with the knife to cut it down. That requires a great physical force. Imagine what it is like for someone under the strong sun, without water or adequate food,” she commented.

In previous raids made by the team of rural inspectors of the SRTE-PE, they wrote up 103 violations against Usina Vitória. “The charges were failures to pay salary, illegal transport of workers, noncompliance with laws regarding the workday and breaks. The company had also not complied with the regulations of Work Security and Safety. And, we closed the worklines and the industrial park,” pointed out Paulo Mendes, who coordinated the rural inspection team.

Mendes also stated that the company representatives demonstrated indifference to the raid by the local inspectors, in addition to not doing much to improve the situation of the workers.

The team of the mobile group canceled the work contracts. Those responsible, however, did not make payments of the rescinded funds, or ensure the rights of the workers giving them compensation.

The company denies that there is exploitation of workers in slavery-like conditions at the Engenho Barra D’Ouro and only admits to problems with safety at the industrial park.

“This idea that there is slave labor is very odd. The company protests this. There were problems at the sugar mill, we are not perfect, just like many sugar mills in the Northeast. Brazilian laws are very rigid with regards to workers safety. But we are improving the situation,” said José Hamilton Lins, lawyer for Usina Vitória.

The lawyer explained that Engenho Poço was leased by Romildo Brandão since the time when the place was owned by Usina 13 de Maio. “The workers bought Engenho Poço when it was owned by Usina 13 de Maio through the lawsuit and some sold their part. The Usina Vitória bought some of the these shares but not all. And since Romildo was the owner of the sugar cane and a local benefactor, he continued to stay and to work there!”

According to the attorney, neither workers nor Usina Vitória are getting rid of Romildo. According to Flávio Gondim, Romildo was named as the employer of the workers at Engenho Poço. Judicially, however, the sugar mill will also be charged as one of the responsible parties in the case.

“From what we can tell, Romildo is not going to fix the houses of the cane cutters. Meanwhile, we are going to charge the sugar mill as well.”

Legal actions will be started against the employers. “The priority is the payment of withheld monies for the 284 employees. We are also submitting a petition to resolve the questions of housing for the workers of the Engenho Poço, another for getting the industrial park of the sugar mill up to code and two more for improving the work lines.”

Usina Vitória’s industrial park was shut down. There was no doctor specialized in labor in charge of the plant.  Inspectors observed problems with electrical wiring, with the use of individual protective equipment and with the boilers. The intense noise of the sugar mill was doing damage to the hearing of 436 employees, who have official working papers.

“After the mandated improvements, the inspectors of the SRTE-PE will conduct another review to ascertain if the sugar mill can be allowed to operate,” explained Jacqueline. The mobile group was made up of 11 tax inspectors, 8 police officers, one chief of the Federal Police and one advocate of worker’s rights, Flávio Gondim. The inspection raid took place over the period of November 11 to 25.

Beto da Usina, the owner of the misbehaving plants, has been indicted by the Electoral Justice for economic power abuse. He is being charged with improperly benefiting from Beto’s Supermarket, a family business, to get votes.

The allegation was made by the current mayor Enoelino Magalhães, who was defeated in October. According to a ruling by the 37th electoral district judge, Cláudio Cavalcanti, there was in fact electoral crime. The charges claim that the supermarket handed out caps and, during a birthday party, decorated the store with the campaign colors.

Moreover, banners with the candidate’s were posted in the supermarket. If the condemnation is confirmed by the Regional Board of Elections of Pernambuco and by the National Election Board, Beto will become ineligible for three years.

Brasil de Fato

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