Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Bitter Fate for Sugar Workers

Sugar cane workers protest for their jobs in Risaralda. (Photo: El Diario)
Harvesting sugar cane with machetes under broiling sun is a dangerous, exhausting and miserably-paid work, which is also highly unreliable, dependent as it is on the vagaries of weather and economy.

However, that terrible toil has supported countless Colombian families. And now that it is going away, they are rebelling.

Harvesting cane by hand.
The same field which employs some 120 machete-wielding laborers can be harvested by a single harvesting machine operated by only four people. Not only that, but the machine can collect the scrap vegetation, which can then be combusted to fuel the cane processing, rather than burned uselessly in the field.

The economic tensions fed strikes recently in Risaralda, particularly on a sugar refinery of the same name, which produced more than a dozen workers and policemen injured.

'We publicly denounce that the Risaralda sugar refinery has strongly promoted mechanization of the harvest as a way to persecute the union., the Sintrainagro union declared on its website. 'We call on government agencies to intervene in favor the workers and their families, for the right to work. Replacing working with machines, leaving them no other dignified source of employment, we'll be faced with unemployment and violence, because the people's needs do not disappear in this nation where prosperity is for some, but not all.'

Where are the workers? Mechanical harvesting of sugar cane.
The union ended the strike after Risaralda agreed to its other main demand: Ending the policy of subcontracting workers, who received little pay and benefits.

But the process of mechanization, which is driven by economic forces, is not likely to stop. Mechanization will end a way of life, albeit a tough one, and expel many thousands of people out of the countryside and into city slums, where they will find few job prospects and often fall prey to crime, drugs and violence.

Such is the reality, in the name of ever-cheaper sugar and ethanol.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: