Rum producers face up to CKDnT ‘epidemic’By Amy Hopkins
As disturbing details of a deadly disease affecting sugarcane workers become more widely known, we ask how much responsibility drinks groups are prepared to shoulder.
*This feature was initially published in the January 2016 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
PR damage control departments of some of the world’s largest rum producers have been on emergency standby in recent months as details of a mysterious, and indeed extremely worrying, aspect of the industry spread through international media.
In the US, bar owners poured bottles of rum down the gutter in protest at what they saw as the reluctance of distillers to combat chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) among Central and Latin American sugarcane workers. Third sector advocates also named and shamed producers they believe have shirked responsibility in combating the ‘epidemic’, which has claimed the lives of thousands of cane cutters and planters in the last decade.
CKDnT is not new, but discussions over its prevalence in the sugarcane industry have resurfaced once again. The disease progressively damages the kidneys, often leading to kidney failure and even death. While there has historically been much uncertainty over the causes of CKDnT, numerous studies have cited poor working conditions experienced by agricultural workers in hot and humid countries as primary catalysts.
A new report by advocacy group Fairfood International, Dutch trade union CNV Internationaal and the Central American Institute for Social Studies, called Give Them a Break, upholds this view. The paper features collaborative field research by the three organisations linking CKDnT with occupational hardships experienced by sugarcane plantation workers in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
These include long working days, few shaded breaks, strenuous labour and insufficient access to potable water. The report claims that the “majority” of poor cane cutters work more than 10 hours a day, often seven days a week.
“Due to these conditions many workers suffer from heat stress and dehydration,” says Lieneke Wieringa, advocacy manager at Fairfood International. “This contributes to the contraction of CKDnT. Some communities are so heavily affected by the disease that they are now primarily populated by widows.”
The report calls on multinational drinks groups, namely Bacardi and Diageo, to improve conditions for workers employed by the sugar plantations they source from, and criticised the firms for allegedly “showing reluctance” to address the issue head on. “We know that at the time of publishing our report, the policies and practices of Bacardi and Diageo were insufficient to properly address the issue,” continues Wieringa. “Moreover, we know that sugar companies in Central America generally speaking are aware of the problem. Nevertheless, the large majority of them still do not guarantee decent working conditions to their workers that prevent them from contracting CKDnT.”
Give Them a Break outlines a number of ways in which sugarcane producers, traders, brand-owning companies and governments can implement positive change and tackle the problem. For Wieringa, the previous uncertainty around the cause of CKDnT is “no excuse to sit back and not act”.
However, Bacardi has slammed the report for what it has called “inaccuracies”. In a statement, the group acknowledged that while there are a number of “systemic” issues related to the industry, it has developed its sugarcane sourcing strategy in collaboration with “industry experts”. In addition, the Bermuda-based firm said it supports Bonsucro – a global non-profit organisation set up to improve the sustainability of the sugarcane industry. Bacardi said that in supporting Bonsucro with financial resources and participation of senior management, it is aiming to “tackle all the diverse issues in the sugarcane industry, rather than focusing on single issue or localised initiatives”.
The group also said it does not buy any sugarcane product from Nicaragua, as claimed by Fairfood, but admitted it does work with two Guatemalan organisations, which have “committed to improving their practices”. Bacardi added that it has, “on occasion”, switched suppliers that have not shown any willingness to take sustainability issues seriously.
“Bacardi takes the unsubstantiated Fairfood International allegations made about its supply chain and human rights initiatives seriously as the company operates in full compliance with all trade regulations and laws in each of the countries it does business in,” a spokesperson said. In response, Fairfood said that at the time its report was published, it believed the information included was correct, adding that Bacardi did not dispute it sourced cane products from Nicaragua when given the opportunity.
Diageo, which has also been accused of running a “specific risk” by not tackling CKDnT-related issues in its sugarcane supply chains, said it encourages cane producers to conduct routine risk assessment and “continually” improve health and safety standards. However, a spokesperson for the group ultimately assigned responsibility to its suppliers.
Role of brokers
They said: “Like many other global companies across various sectors, we do not source our molasses, which is a by-product of sugar, directly from farmers, but via international brokers, however, we continue to work with our partners to look closely at the standards on sugarcane farming in Central America.”
Separate reports in UK and US media have sparked concern among the bartending community with regards to CKDnT. A select few bartenders and bar owners recently boycotted Flor de Caña rum over reports focusing on conditions at the Ingenio San Antonio (ISA) sugar mill, where the brand’s parent company sources cane materials. The United States Bartenders’ Guild subsequently said a number of its members had “made contact” about the issue and that it had “opened a dialogue” on CKDnT.
The guild said it was “satisfied” Flor de Caña owner Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua was willing to discuss the matter. USBG executive director Aaron Gregory Smith added: “I am aware that more steps are being taken in the company’s supply chain to seek advice on rolling out the existing recommendations to address the disease in the field workforce.”
Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), owner of ISA, said it is “committed” to “doing its part” and “finding solutions” for CKDnT. The group has contributed US$8m to fund further research into causes of the disease, reduce rates of contraction among its workforce, help sufferers secure an alternative source of income, and find treatment for “end stage” patients. NSEL has also outlined a number of “additional actions” to come into effect in 2016. “We believe that progress on this epidemic can only be made as a result of co-operation from all parties,” said Javier J. Arguello, chairman of the NSEL board.
As more consumers read about the extent of CKDnT, and as more research identifies its prevalence in the sugarcane industry, rum producers look set to further prioritise ethical sourcing of base ingredients. And with human lives apparently at risk, these plans have never been more urgent.