Flor de Caña Sugar Producer Responds to Allegations of Poor Working Conditions

Last week, we published an article entitled, “Rum To Die For: Plight Of Sugar Cane Workers Leads Bar Owners To Dump Popular Brand.” It details how some bar owners are no longer carrying Flor de Caña rum due to a Vice Munchies exposé. The Vice article reported on abnormally high numbers of fatalities related to chronic kidney disorder (CKD) among sugar cane workers—specifically, those employed by Ingenio San Antonio (ISA). The Nicaraguan company is a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas and provides the molasses used to produce Flor de Caña rum.

After our article, the Houston Press was contacted by Lex Suvanto, managing director of financial communications and special situations for Edelman. Edelman describes itself as “the world’s largest public relations firm” and has offices around the globe, including Latin America. Their other clients include mega-corporations like Starbucks, Kraft and Microsoft. Suvanto says that Edelman represents Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), the proprietor of Ingenio San Antonio. 

He sent us links to a brand-new web site created specifically to communicate the measures ISA says it has implemented (or is going to implement) to fix the issues. (The domain name was registered on December 7, 2015.) The web site makes several claims, including some that specifically respond to some of the questions in our previous article about worker access to rest, shade and hydration. It states that workers are required to carry a 10 liter container of water and are also provided with 2.7 liters of isotonic hydrating drink supplemented with sodium chloride, potassium chloride, ascorbic acid and glucose. (Think “Gatorade.”)

The web site furthermore says that workers only work six hours during the coolest part of the day, specifically between 6 a.m. and noon. and that they can only work six consecutive days without being required to take a day off. We asked how long these working conditions have been in effect for ISA workers and were pointed back to the new web site, which doesn't include this information. 

The biggest problem is that no one outside of ISA can really verify these claims. 

We asked Jason Glaser, CEO of non-profit research organization La Isla Foundation, what he thought of the information on the new ISA web site. He said, “I just talked to our people on the ground. You can see in the articles and reports, like the one in National Geographic, that the difference in what they claim is the standard practice and what actually occurs is like night and day."

La Isla Foundation supplied the Houston Press with their written rebuttal to Ingenio San Antonio’s latest claims and it is shown below. They say that both the initial Boston University and Baylor College of Medicine studies cited by ISA were paid for by Comité Nacional de Productores de Azúcar de Nicaragua (National Committee of Sugar Producers of Nicaragua) and cannot be considered truly independent. “It’s not that they’re ‘dirty’; it’s just that they’re absolutely compromised,” asserted Glaser.

With that said, the latest Boston University study—the one that concluded there was a link between sugar cane worker conditions and the high rate of CKD—did at least have some fiscal separation from the source. Funds were administered and paid out by the compliance adviser/ombudsman (CAO) of the World Bank Group.

The lack of third-party, impartial verification of ISA’s claims is a sticking point for La Isla Foundation. Their rebuttal says:

During investigations by international news crews and human rights organizations, external observers have found that there is a contrast between the conditions of staged (for the benefit of the press and perhaps government regulators) work areas, where observers are officially directed by ISA, and the observed reality for the majority of workers, who are subcontracted into employment in ISA’s. 

The Vice Munchies report on the issue also alludes to ISA’s fiercely protective stance against outsiders. Author Clarissa Wei wrote that during her tour of the Flor de Caña she was forbidden from visiting the sugar cane fields and was told that it was heavily guarded. The reason given was, “Because people in the past have stolen sugar.”

All that aside, it seems at this point both ISA and La Isla Foundation have the same goal: to move forward. Glaser says he’s been invited to have a meeting with ISA next week. “We can use this attention—this negative outcry—to create a positive platform to start working together,” says Glaser. “Let’s leave the past where it is. Let’s move forward.”

For ISA’s part, they say they are ready to accept more transparency and oversight starting in the first quarter of 2016. The home page of their new information web site makes three promises:
  • During the first quarter of 2016, we will create an Advisory Board comprised of independent scientists and public health specialists to help us stay informed of the latest scientific knowledge and best practices on this matter.

  • During the first quarter of 2016, we will engage a qualified independent external body to review our current practices and certify that the same policies and benefits apply for contracted and sub-contracted workers. We will plan to incorporate their recommendations for further improvements.

  • In the first half of 2016, we will organize a symposium to convene relevant experts and industry participants to encourage broader dialogue about latest research, best practices and possible solutions.
If ISA indeed employs cost-effective methods to improve working conditions, such the ones tested by La Isla Foundation’s WE program in El Salvador (see video below), and can quantifiably demonstrate a reduction in instances of CKD, it could improve the quality of life for not only their own sugar cane workers, but those throughout the rum industry.

“If you can get Flor de Caña to verify their work practices, and make the changes that they are promising to make—or promise to have already made—and to verify that and make sure it reaches the work force, that will have a cascade effect to all those other brands almost immediately,” said Glaser. “There will be many of calls to La Isla and others saying ‘Help us end this. We don’t want to be those guys.’” 

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook