With Elio Neves

A historical moment in the struggle of Brazil's sugarcane cutters


After a negotiation process that resulted in an agreement described as “historic” by the parties involved, the Federation of Rural Laborers of the State of São Paulo (FERAESP) participated in a meeting with President Lula. Sirel spoke with Elio Neves, president of the Federation, to learn the details of the agreement and the meeting with Lula.


-Tell us the reason you met with President Lula.

-On Monday, May 4, we met with President Lula to inform him of the outcome of a process that began last year with a Dialogue Table that was set up by the Presidency of the Republic to discuss the situation of Brazil’s sugarcane cutters.


The table was formed by a government delegation with representatives from several Ministries, and delegations of National Confederation of Agriculture Workers (CONTAG) and FERAESP representatives. Management was also present at the table, through representatives of São Paulo’s Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) and the National Sugar-Alcohol Forum.

After 18 meetings held over the second half of last year and throughout 2009, we presented the President with a document containing a proposal for a national agreement to adapt and incorporate best business practices in the industry’s treatment of sugarcane cutters across Brazil.


-What was the President’s reaction?

-He’s going to study the document with his team of advisors, and if they agree with the contents, a solemn ceremony will be held at the end of May, organized by the President, to announce this agreement to the people of Brazil.


-What are the main points in the agreement?

-The most important item is that the refineries have undertaken to hire all sugarcane cutters directly, and to register them with the Social Security Agency, promising to no longer resort to the outsourcing agents commonly known as “cats,” who refinery owners have been using until now to avoid their social responsibilities.


This is a significant gain for workers, because our struggle has traditionally been marked by enormous efforts to remove the middleman from labor contracting, as middlemen have always been highly responsibly for increasing labor instability. In the case of seasonal and migrant workers, employers have assumed the obligation of hiring sugarcane cutters directly at their place of origin, and to hire them in coordination with the National Employment Service (SINE), wherever this service is available. Employers have also assumed the obligation of providing workers with roundtrip transportation to and from their housing and eating facilities.


Another very important point is that all the commissions or prizes based on work volume, which benefited workers who gather the product on the fields, have been eliminated. We think that this will go a long way towards helping to eliminate long workdays, the so-called “exaustão,” and other deplorable situations that are caused by the pressures suffered by workers in their workplace.


This document also creates a Permanent Committee to evaluate and negotiate the agreement’s implementation process. In all, 16 items were negotiated, covering a range of issues, from health to safety to food, transportation, etc.


-It’s a huge success for workers!

-It’s very significant, because as far back as 2002 FERAESP had presented UNICA with a list of demands containing all of these items that are now being fully incorporated in this agreement. Several of these demands had already been achieved here in São Paulo, through strikes and mobilizations, but now they will be applied nationwide. It should be noted that in these negotiations FERAESP worked side by side with CONTAG to defend sugarcane cutters throughout the country. When this commitment is signed and becomes final, it will be a historic moment for Brazil because for the first time ever the work of the sugarcane cutters will have been debated and considered at the level of the Presidency of the Republic.


-What was the scope of these negotiations?

-They covered all of the country’s refineries, which are more than 400 in total and directly employ some 850 thousand workers.


-Where is the agreement now?

-It’s being studied by the Presidency of the Republic’s  Legal Advisors, and once they’re finished studying it, it will be submitted to the President for his signature.


-Was this the first time FERAESP and CONTAG joined forces?

-In this kind of action, yes, it was the first time. From that perspective it is also a historic event, because despite of our differences in terms of political and labor views, we worked very well together, and this spirit of unity was decisive in achieving a successful outcome in the process of negotiation.


I would also like to underline that the IUF, through its Latin American Regional Office, contributed from the start to the negotiations, because even before FERAESP joined the IUF, during the period in which it was considering its affiliation, the IUF helped us see how useful market tools can be in worker-employer negotiations.


The IUF worked extremely well with the National Confederation of Agriculture Workers (CONTAC) and FERAESP, organizing seminars here in São Paulo, giving us the possibility of participating in activities in Mexico, in the international sugar seminar in Germany, and in other events in Buenos Aires. These contacts with fellow workers from other regions in the world enabled FERAESP to devise this policy directly. The exchange and participation made possible by the IUF were instrumental in the early stages of the process that culminated in this agreement.


Lastly, I would like to stress the significance of the international campaign conducted by the IUF to denounce the working conditions of Brazil’s sugarcane cutters, a reality that we hope will now begin to change.



From Montevideo, Carlos Amorín
May 8, 2009




Photomontage: Rel-UITA


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