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Brazilian Labor Issues Briefing

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Employing almost one million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s total rural workforce, the sugarcane industry faces many challenges to continue its growth while fostering a socially fair and economically competitive employment environment.


In the last 20 years, the volume of sugarcane harvested and processed in Brazil has almost tripled, partly due to the expansion in production of ethanol to supply the growing Flex Fuel Vehicles fleet, exports and the cogeneration of bioelectricity. In addition, mechanized harvesting practices are becoming the norm in the Brazilian cane industry, which contributes to the displacement of cane cutters, many of whom are being retrained to operate the modern machinery and work in other segments of the economy.

Salaries for sugarcane industry workers are among the highest in Brazil’s agriculture, second only to wages in the soybean industry.[1][1] On average, a sugarcane cutter makes more than Brazil’s per capita income, as measured by the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. Moreover, all workers in the sugarcane industry are represented in collective bargaining negotiations irrespective of their decision to join a labor union. Among UNICA member companies, 98% of all workers are fully documented. By way of comparison, 13% of all U.S. agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The Facts

The Brazilian sugarcane industry has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years due to a targeted effort to ensure the highest labor standards possible.

  • In 1995, the Ministry of Labor created Special Mobile Inspection Groups (GEFMs in the Portuguese acronym), which are roving units that inspect work conditions in rural areas throughout the country.
  • The number of GEMFs has grown dramatically in the past decade. Their stated goal is to eradicate all forms of what is known in Brazil as “work analogous to slavery,” which is defined as not only forced labor and the loss of one’s freedom to come and go, but also labor performed in what the law describes as degrading working conditions. These can range from improper bathroom and housing facilities for rural workers, to a lack of mandatory safety equipment and other supplies.
  • Inspection agents enjoy functional autonomy, which gives them unquestioned legitimacy and unlimited subjectivity to judge what they encounter. This leads to situations where an alleged violation of the labor code is disseminated to the news media as if it were a conviction, even before the accused are afforded due process.

The dynamics of sugarcane harvesting, particularly the large number of cane cutters, leads to erroneous impressions of excessive violations.

  • Like most field activities in rural areas, manual sugarcane harvesting is a task that requires strength, endurance and large contingents of workers.
  • If alleged irregularities found are considered by inspectors to be degrading work conditions, the agent has the autonomy to request that one or all employees presumably involved be dismissed from their jobs. These workers are then offered a “letter of emancipation” and three months’ unemployment insurance, even if they return to work at the same location a few days later. This practice can inflate the number of “emancipated” workers, leaving the impression that alleged irregularities are worse than they appear.
  • In fact, the proportion of emancipations from the sugarcane industry is significantly smaller when compared to other sectors that have less total workers but a larger share of emancipations.

As the industry moves away from manual cane harvesting, the new reality increasingly requires retraining of the workforce for more skilled labor.

  • The São Paulo state sugarcane industry (about two-thirds of Brazil’s cane production) has signed an agreement with the state government to end sugarcane burning by 2014. Burning is a centuries-old practice that eliminates the straw around the cane and makes the manual harvest possible. Collective agreements between workers and companies state that cane cutters will not harvest manually without removal of the straw through the use of fire.
  • No burning means sugarcane must be harvested mechanically. With mechanization advancing and rapidly replacing the manual harvest, the industry has focused on retraining workers involved in manual planting and harvesting for new activities.
  • In 2009, UNICA joined forces with John Deere, Case New Holland and Syngenta, key players in the sugarcane industry supply chain, to create the largest training and requalification program for sugarcane industry workers in the world, with added financial support from the Inter-American Development Bank.
  • Initially, 7,000 workers will be retrained per year in skills ranging from basic literacy to sewing and electrical, as well as harvester operators and mechanics.

The sugarcane industry joins forces with the federal government to take best practices nationwide and improve working conditions beyond the law.

  • To reduce the impacts of mechanization, after a year of intense negotiations coordinated by President Lula’s senior advisors, representatives of employers, workers and six federal government ministries signed, in June of 2009, the National Commitment to Enhance Working Conditions in Sugarcane.
  • The agreement is a new three-party model of voluntary compliance with national reach, which differs from any negotiation to date and represents a breakthrough in labor relations. Companies that signed on must meet a set of 30 best practices that go beyond legal obligations. The parties involved in the Commitment are considering ways to publicly recognize compliance by companies.
  • The agreement ‘raises the bar’ in terms of best labor practices adopted in the sugarcane industry. A key item in the agreement, which illustrates how the Commitment exceeds what is written into law, deals with hiring workers through a middleman. The practice is not against the law, but was banned under the agreement for manual planting and harvesting activities, because both employers and unions agreed that in some situations, this has led to a loss of quality in labor relations.
  • Other best practices adopted by the Commitment include standards for worker transportation, inspection methods, procedures involving migrant workers, training for the use of equipment for personal protection and pauses during shifts for stretching and exercise sessions.

[1][1] See as well as Brazilian Ministry of Labor and World Bank, among others for additional details.

copyright 2010 Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association