Rural labour and agroenergy

This territorial expansion and the technological advances that accompanied it were led by multinational food and energy firms that increased their market share but at the expense of smaller Brazilian companies, and has intensified local conflicts over land and water. The sector can certainly point to specific sites of economic growth: nationally 800,000 people are directly employed through 400 industrial units and 70,000 sugar cane suppliers. In Quirinópolis, sugar and ethanol production has directly employed over 4900 workers in 2013 and coincided with an increase in GDP per capita for the municipality from R$5227 in 2000 to R$20957 in 2011. Mechanisation, however, has replaced more direct jobs than the sector has created and, as it experiences instability through the cycles of boom and slump that are typical of commodity markets, those firms without access to international finance are unable to compete. This led to some 109 factories either closed, temporarily stopped or seeking emergency support since 2012, with 13,000 jobs lost in one year alone and conflicting perspectives on the social and environmental record of this new energy form continue.

Three categories of workers were the focus of our research on social impacts of industrialised ethanol on community based alternatives in Brazil:

Firstly, traditional, small, food producing farmers; the 'camponeses' and African-descendent 'quilombo' communities of Brazil and the crofters of Scotland that are the focus of Section 4.3

Secondly, Brazilian rural labourers working in sugar cane manual and mechanised planting, treatment, harvesting and transport.

Thirdly, landless workers involved in land occupations (camps) and workers and communities involved in successful settlements of land and agrarian reform that include projects of sustainable food and energy production.

Their perspectives of changing work as a result of agroenergy expansion were collected from interviews, focus groups and surveys and are presented below.

Rural labourers

Insecurity was a commanding theme in the work we carried out with rural workers employed in the fields and distilleries of sugar and ethanol production and reported by 48 of 56 respondents to a survey. Instability in the sector had led to a recent loss of 13,000 jobs. Secondly, modernisation has been equated with mechanisation, lean production processes and intense competition in the new frontiers now dominated by international finance. As these industrial leaders acknowledged the cyclical nature of commodity trade does not deliver long term job security for many and while sugar cane cutting has historically been equated with slave like working conditions, the elimination of some 450,000 jobs by mechanised harvesters (one machine replaces 100-120 employees) is not welcome news for rural workers with few other opportunities. In Quírinopolis the turnover of staff, the payment of salaries some 60% lower than by the same companies in adjacent São Paulo state and the sector’s troubled relation with employment rights continues (Figure 5.5, 5.6). The leading companies avail of the most modern of digital performance management systems linked to lean work organisation and quality standards orientated towards export markets. Testimonies of uncompensated employees of multinational corporations sickened after being directly sprayed by aerial insecticides, routine pay deductions and expulsion of trade unionists dotted our investigations and it is clear that the current of market-orientated and voluntary certification are not adequate to safeguard worker rights and employer responsibility. Indeed, following audited health checks of their operations in 2012, 60 of the 169 companies were being investigated through the courts for serious labour violations. In Goiás State, home to the greatest recent expansion of sugarcane, 39 workers freed from slave-like conditions had been found working in the mechanized cutting of cane. They had been subjected to 27-hour working periods without a break, whilst two workers involved in a serious accident had each been working in excess of 20 hours (Repórter Brasil 2011b). In São Paulo, 26 of the agreement's 85 signatories were involved in labour court actions for failing to provide their workers with protective equipment, toilet, eating or rest facilities and for continuing to use third-party contractors to hire workers.

Figure 5.5 (top) Relative share of sugarcane activity in the formal labour market 2002-2013. Source: Ministry of Work and Employment (MTE) 2015. (bottom) Monthly turnover of staff in sugar and ethanol sector in Quirinópolis in 2013 (orange is the number entering employment, yellow is the number leaving employment per calendar month) source MTE 2014.

Figure 5.6 Modern risks within the sugar and ethanol sector: potable water and bathroom facilities for herbicide workers, Quírinopolis.

Unemployment, dispossession and landless labourers

Given the rapid expansion of large scale, mechanised monoculture in the region, subsequent increases in land prices, inability of smaller producers to co-exist with the competitive industry and the often coercive means by which traditional farmers are encouraged to lease to the larger corporations the sight of landless camps beside sugar cane plantations are common sight in the new frontiers. Perhaps as many as half of the 200 inhabitants at the Boa Vista camp had previously worked or were working in the sector. Very often cutting costs was the reason given for dismissal of scores of those interviewed and with few other opportunities for workers from rural zones or 'the periphery' of the rural towns had few other employment opportunities. The fact that employees of the fields and factories belonging to multinational mergers (Shell, BP and Petrobras) were among the landless labourers pointed to the notoriously low basic wages in the sector. Unemployment, combined with a lack of security and the social problems of urban peripheries were most commonly cited as the additional incentive for families –usually with a history of working the land- to join the camps occupying land in the hope of working it in the future through the national policy of agrarian reform. While the official policy documents from the European commission, ILO, United nations and national governments are keen to point to the potential for rural development opportunities linked to the 'green economy' there is much evidence to suggest contrary trends on the most modernised frontiers of agroenergy.

Figure 5.7 Visit to Acampamento Dom Tomas Balduíno, a Temporary landless workers’ camp organised by the MST (pictured) near Pírenopolis,