Rum to Die For: Plight of Sugar Cane Workers Leads Bar Owners to Dump Popular Brand

A Vice Munchies exposé has raised awareness among bartenders and bar owners that horrible working conditions in the sugar cane industry are causing abnormally high instances of potentially fatal chronic kidney disease, or CKD. Studies cited in the report by Boston University and nonprofit organization La Isla Foundation specifically point to higher instances of CKD in workers who harvest sugar cane for Flor de Caña, a Nicaraguan product.

Bobby Heugel, who co-owns Anvil Bar & Refuge among other Houston bars, even dumped the bar’s entire stock of Flor de Caña down the sink and shared his decision with others via social media. “While Flor de Caña is likely not the only producer that needs to address these concerns, there has never been a report this explicit documenting the consequences of farming practices related to spirit production, as shown by the VICE Munchies report issued this week,” Heugel wrote in a Facebook post.

The move has led to a great deal of discussion in the industry about the need to be informed about the living conditions of those involved on the labor side of spirit production. “I don’t how you read [the reports], see how well-documented and thoroughly researched it’s been and do anything but immediately remove that product from a bar,” Heugel said in a phone interview.

Flor de Caña is operated by Compañia Licorera de Nicaragua, a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas. Another company owned by Grupo Pellas, Ingenio San Antonio, actually oversees the sugar cane harvesting that generates the molasses used to produce rum.

The Ingenio San Antonio plant is located in Chichigalpa, a village of about 50,000 people. More than half of the men there are suffering from chronic kidney disease. The Vice article states that’s more than six times the national average and that the 2015 Boston University study concluded that “one or more risk factors of CKD are occupational.” The lack of rest, water and shade is suspected to be the main contributing factor to the abnormally high instances of CKD deaths.

La Isla Foundation, the nonprofit organization cited in the Vice article, is named for a rural sugar cane harvesting community that has been so hard-hit by worker deaths that it’s now nicknamed La Isla de Viudas or “The Island of Widows.” A report from August 20, 2014, titled “Sickly Sweet: Human Rights Conditions for Sugar Cane Workers in Western Nicaragua” describes working conditions as follows:

"On average, workers reported laboring 12 hours a day during the zafra, the harvest season that lasts from November until May. During these months, working hours generally lasted from 5 or 6 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m. The harvest season takes place during the hottest months of the year, when temperatures climb to over 100°F (37.8°C) in the fields. Researchers have found that sugarcane workers lose on average 2.6kg (5.7 lbs) of body weight during the course of a day. There are few options for shade."

The report further contains allegations of child labor and instances of intimidation and violence against workers by Ingenio San Antonio's security forces. 

Heugel is far from alone in his concerns. Bar owners across the country are choosing not to carry Flor de Caña, including Erick Castro, who owns bars on both the East and West coasts. Castro operates Boilermaker in New York City and Polite Provisions in San Diego, among others. Castro says in light of the allegations, his bars are switching to Cana Brava brand for their house rum. 

Not all bartenders have decided to stop carrying Flor de Caña, though. Spare Key’s Chris Frankel says, “I read the same article everyone's talking about, and while it's certainly disconcerting, I don't know enough about the labor situation at Flor de Caña and how it compares/differs with that of other rum producers.” Monique Mickley, bar manager at The Honeymoon, says that club hasn't discontinued carrying the rum brand, either.

The Vice report is the one that’s really lit a fire of concern among bartenders in the United States, but it is not the first exposé that’s been published on the topic this year. National Geographic also reported on the issue on January 29, 2015, and The Guardian published its own article on the subject on February 16, 2015.

As far back as 2009, a group called Flor de Caña Boycott Group was seeking supporters and trying to organize a letter campaign. Their Facebook page has since disappeared, but even then, there were claims of abnormally high fatality rates among workers. The group blamed both working conditions and pesticides:

“"In Nicaragua, a holding by the name Pellas Group has a sugar cane plantation called Ingenio San Antonio. This plantation produces the raw material for making Flor de Caña rum. The labor conditions and the use of pesticides in the plantation have sentenced to death more than 3,000 former workers, besides contaminating the water, lands and the air of the western part of the country.”

Coincidentally, Flor de Caña was slated to be the sponsor of this week's meeting of the Houston chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. It's a normal practice for meeting sponsors to share information about their products and a good opportunity to get to know bartenders in the community. However, just hours before the meeting, the USBG's national organization pulled the sponsorship, instead forwarding a statement from Compañia Licorera de Nicaragua that was read aloud at the meeting.

The statement expresses concern that the company’s efforts are not accurately being reflected in the media, saying, “While the press articles rightfully share concern and sympathy for workers with this unsolved kidney disease, they fail to reflect our own commitment and how deeply we care for, value, and invest in our workers. The articles have not discussed our openness to collaborating with many parties who have a vested interest in understanding, diagnosing and proposing solutions to this situation, nor referenced our research collaborations with academic medical partners such as Boston University and Baylor University. In fact, our current operational procedures reflect changes we’ve made based on the recommendations from these partners.”

Unfortunately, details about those operational procedures haven't been made available. We asked to speak with a Flor de Caña representative about the allegations in the Vice report and were provided with a different official statement that only discusses working conditions in extremely general terms. For example, one line reads, “Ingenio San Antonio has established industry best practices in terms of hydration, rest and shade...” without describing what those practices are and which rum producers are used as a basis for comparison.

We’ve asked for details, such as number of hours in a work day, how often workers are required to take a break and how water is provided or made available. Flor de Caña representatives have told us it will take some time to pull those details together. If we happen to receive more information, we’ll update this post.

Bar owner Alex Gregg of Moving Sidewalk has decided to stop carrying Flor de Caña and is also hoping for more answers. He says, “Basically, what it boils down to is that the information that came out this past week is too severe to ignore. While they certainly aren't the only people with labor issues in the spirit industry, they still need to answer for this issue, and a damage control press release doesn't quite suffice.” 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook