boycott Flor de Caña
by Giorgio Trucchi - Rel-UITA
On July 26, a large delegation of trade union representatives from different countries was invited by the trade unions active in Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), a sugar mill owned by Nicaragua Sugar Estate Ltd., company member of the Pellas Group, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Confederation of Workers (CST) and inform about the content of a controversial agreement signed between the company and three trade unions.
This agreement was categorically rejected by various national and international organizations, not so much for its content, but because it is seen as an instrument that Nicaragua Sugar Estates Ltd. (NSEL), Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua SA (CLNSA) and the Pellas Group itself are using to pit active workers against the former workers organized in the Nicaraguan Association of People Affected by Chronic Renal Failure (ANAIRC), to outrageously isolate the latter.
The members of ANAIRC have been staging a protest in Managua for the past five months, demanding that NSEL heed their compensation claims to cover the damages caused to their health when they worked for Ingenio San Antonio.
To date, the response from the company has consistently been the same: total silence. Meanwhile the former sugarcane workers and the widows of former workers organized in ANAIRC have had to put up with violence, persecution and threats from strangers, as well as a violent repression from the police, as was the case on July 31, when Carmen Ríos, the president of this organization -an affiliated of the IUF-, was beaten, threatened and taken into custody by police agents.
To understand the significance of the presence of this international trade union delegation, and in particular of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (CSA) at Ingenio San Antonio, Sirel spoke with Amanda Villatoro, CSA Union Policy and Education Secretary, one of the representatives that took part in the delegation. The conversation was held in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Villatoro traveled as part of a visit to express her organization’s solidarity with that country’s popular resistance against the coup.
-What’s the reason for CSA’s presence at Ingenio San Antonio, property of Nicaragua Sugar Estates Ltd., which is a member of the powerful Pellas Group? The press published statements in which the delegation declared that there are good working conditions at the sugar mill…
-First of all, I would like to thank this opportunity that Rel-UITA (the IUF’s Latin American Office) is giving us to set the record straight about what happened at Ingenio San Antonio. The visit was planned by the trade unions that signed an agreement with that company with the aim of improving working conditions and guaranteeing employment stability.
CSA was invited along with labor federations from the region (the Central American Trade Union Coordinating Body), Spain (UGT and Comisiones Obreras), Panama (Convergencia Sindical), Canada (CSN), and Mexico (CROC), in the framework of the 30th anniversary of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Confederation of Workers (CST), which is an affiliate of ours.
The idea was to visit the Ingenio San Antonio facilities and find out what it’s doing in terms of environmental issues, labor relations, safety and hygiene. But it’s not true that CSA said that working conditions there are good.
-But some Nicaraguan press media featured statements by your delegation saying the company has the support of the international labor movement.
-We never said that. What we did was respond to an invitation from trade unions and labor federations that are members of our organization, like CST and CUS; it wasn’t an invitation from the company. In the company’s case, it may very well be that it’s looking for a way to distort our statements, when all we did was ask management what the incidence of CRF is among workers. They told us about some studies they want to conduct and that the labor organizations active in Ingenio San Antonio were invited to participate.
As CSA, we firmly support -as the IUF does- the demand for CRF to be recognized as an occupational illness in Nicaragua, and for the Nicaraguan government and, most of all, Ingenio San Antonio to recognize this illness that affects so many workers and has already caused the death of many people.
-There are more than 3,400 former workers of Ingenio San Antonio who have died…
-And many more could die. CSA condemns the failure to solve this problem by not recognizing CRF as an occupational illness, and we call on the government of president Daniel Ortega and the management of the company involved to solve the issue. That’s CSA’s position.
-The agreement signed by the general labor federations with the Pellas Group was condemned by a number of national organizations, such as FNT and the Food Workers’ Federation (FUTATSCON), because they see it as an instrument that the company is using to pit active workers against the people affected by CRF, and to isolate the Nicaraguan Association of People Affected by Chronic Renal Failure (ANAIRC). What do you think?
-I think it’s a domestic matter, which pertains to Nicaraguans and which we don’t understand, but are trying to figure out. There are four unions that signed the agreement and which are working in the company, these unions are members of CSA, and we don’t think one thing should exclude the other. Protecting the rights of Ingenio San Antonio’s active workers should not go against or exclude the possibility of defending the rights of the workers who are no longer in activity.
-But the former workers who are affected by CRF claim that these are white (employer-controlled) unions …
-I’m not going to get into that discussion, nor am I going to disqualify anybody. CSA is not going to get involved in that. What we will say is that one action does not exclude the other, and as CSA we extend our solidarity and firmly demand that the workers who are organized under the CRF association be treated with solidarity and be given an answer.
-It would have been important if this trade union delegation could have met with the CRF victims, to hear what their position is and learn what the other side has to say…
-We wanted to, but we were unable to find someone with whom to arrange a meeting. And we were only going to be in the country two days…
-Well, it could’ve been arranged through the IUF…
-In that case, it wasn’t our intention to exclude the IUF, because a visit to the CRF victims was not on the agenda. We were invited by three organizations that are members of CSA and are involved in the agreement with this company. An agreement, I repeat, that should not rule out the possibility of defending and supporting the rights of the former workers affected with CRF.
-After five months of protesting in Managua, demanding that Nicaragua Sugar Estates listen to their request to open negotiations, ANAIRC still has not received an answer. Instead, the company’s trade unions have staged threatening demonstrations in front of the home of the president of ANAIRC…
-We have no knowledge of that, but what I can say is that CSA has issue a policy guideline for our affiliates in Nicaragua, which includes the obligation of protecting both active workers and workers no longer in activity.
-Do you agree that the company should sit down with them and listen to their claim for compensation for the damages caused to their health?
-Of course, of course. And that’s what CSA has issued as a recommendation and guideline, calling on the unions that are in the company to press for management to arrange a meeting and begin looking for a solution to address the damages caused to the former workers’ health.
-Nicaraguan university students and more than 1,100 people from around the world spontaneously joined a boycott campaign against Flor de Caña rum, which is the leading product of the Pellas Group companies, to try to get them to heed ANAIRC’s demands. Do you think boycotts are viable instruments for pressuring companies?
-In the past, the international labor movement has used similar mechanisms to fight for workers’ rights. In this case, it’s up to the different organizations, trade unions, workers and former workers involved to decide if they carry on and intensify a boycott of this kind. We did it to support the workers of agricultural plantations in the United States, to fight against apartheid in South Africa, and in many other occasions when there was a major trampling of workers’ rights.
-Some days ago, members of ANAIRC were harshly repressed by the police, following a request from the Pellas Group to clear them out, as they were conducting an international videoconference in front of the Pellas Building in Managua.
-CSA supports workers who suffer any form of repression, whether in Nicaragua, in Honduras or anywhere on Earth, when they are legitimately demanding respect for their rights as workers, and CSA will accompany and support them condemning this kind of actions regardless of the government or the country involved. It’s reprehensible any way you look at it.
-We hope that next time you are in Nicaragua you will have time to also speak with the people affected by CRF who are struggling…
-We hope so too, and what’s more, CSA is willing to go back specifically to follow this matter and contribute to finding a solution to this problem and the drama of our brothers and sisters who are dying from CRF.
-That’s a promise?
-Absolutely. And we’ve already communicated our intention to do so to the secretary of the IUF’s Latin American Regional Office, Gerardo Iglesias.