The bitter side of Honduras’ sugar industry

There are approximately 200,000 active workers during harvest season in the sugar industry in Honduras. Most are working under a subcontract for sugar refineries and are not protected by labor laws such as social security, unemployment, or retirement benefits. Payment varies according to the amount they harvest, and workers often earn less than the minimum wage. Those who earn more push their bodies to the limit and have to work on Sundays.

Text & Photography: Amílcar Izaguirre
Translated by: José Rivera

Juan quit school after a fight with his cousin and after being physically punished by a teacher when he was 12. He doesn’t recall what caused that argument as a child, but he has been an agricultural worker who has had many tough jobs ever since. At 59 he is still working as a “machaquero” (someone who cuts sugar cane) at a sugar plantation in the municipality of San Manuel, Cortés, in northern Honduras, where most of the sugar in the country is grown.

Juan left the municipality of San Francisco de Coray in the southern department of Valle in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch. He was looking for work and a better future. He worked for many years in banana plantations in San Manuel, but he has been working in sugar plantations for 14 years. It’s temporary work with no social security and an unfair wage because he is employed by a contractor who sells services to sugar refineries. There are four sugar refineries in Valle de Sula, Azucarera Chumbagua in Santa Bárbara; Azucarera del Norte in Santa Rita, Yoro; Azucarera Yojoa in Río Lindo and Compañía Azucarera en Villanueva, both in Cortés.

Machaqueros are paid according to the amount of sugar cane meters they cut. They are named “machaqueros” after the tool they use to cut sugar cane, a “machaca”, a wide and heavy machete bent in the middle with a wooden handle. To avoid injuries machaqueros use gloves like those used by goalkeepers in soccer matches.

Before cutting sugar they burn the fields to get rid of dry leaves and weeds found among crops in order to make the harvest easier and to avoid snake bites. During harvest, the cities of San Pedro Sula, La Lima, El Progreso, and Villanueva are covered by layers of smoke that contaminate the air and restrict visibility. Inhabitants in those municipalities have demanded in council meetings they stop burning the fields.

According to the business magazine Forbes for Central America, 200,000 workers are hired directly and indirectly by sugar refineries in Honduras. They produced 11.5 million quintales (a single quintal equals 100 lbs) that season, of which 70% were destined for domestic consumption and 30% were exported to international markets.

Oney Montes, the person in charge of transporting sugar cane by truck and manually for Compañía Azucarera Hondureña S. A. (CAHSA), said that an average of 13 metric tons are processed every day. He also stated that 60% of sugar cane is harvested by hand and 40% mechanically, the latter technique is also known as “green harvest” because it doesn’t require burning the fields.

Montes, who has been working for this company for 23 years, said the goal is to harvest 100% of sugar cane mechanically, a practice he considers environmentally-friendly. “We’re taking small steps, but 40% is a considerable amount and by next year we hope to harvest 50% by hand and 50% mechanically”, stated Montes.

According to Montes, an expert in the industry, a large investment is required to reach a fully mechanized harvest because machinery is expensive and fields have to be leveled so the harvester can operate. If a fully mechanized harvest system is achieved, there would be less demand for workers to cut sugar cane.

“Pre-harvest field burning is practiced in many countries like the United States, Mexico and in Central America, of course”, said Montes.

The use of technology for harvest is a problem for sugar refineries because there aren’t enough skilled workers in Honduras. To fill in for those jobs refineries hire loader and harvester operators from Nicaragua, a country that has a skilled workforce. “They started harvesting sugar in Nicaragua before we did and that’s why they have a more developed industry”, said Oney.

Harvest began on January 12th and is expected to end in mid-May, that’s four months of continuous work for machaqueros. When the season is over companies hire a few machaqueros for sowing, cleaning, irrigation and fertilization of sugar cane, while most have to wait until the following year.

“We even get cramps on our body in this kind of work”, said Juan Flores as he was looking for a bottle of warm water among the dry cane leaves to avoid dehydration. With his hands covered in dirt and ashes, he wiped the sweat from his face which turned black.

Juan has harvested cane for many years, but he could barely afford the plot of land where he lives. He has six sons and two of them work with him in the fields. “This is tough work, you see how workers are drenched in sweat”, said Juan after having a sip of water as he pointed to his sons who were still cutting cane. You could see the drops of sweat falling to the ground.

José Ríos, un joven de 22 años del departamento de Choluteca, corta las hojas de la caña y la acomoda para que las máquinas puedan recolectarlas. Foto CC/Amilcar Izaguirre
José Ríos, a 22-year-old man from Choluteca, cuts sugar cane leaves and places them in the ground so the machines can pick them up. Photo CC/Amilcar Izaguirre

Young men who live near the sugar plantations prefer to work in sweatshops. There are few brave enough who dare to work in the extreme heat and in such harsh conditions. That’s the reason why the company hires (under a subcontract) workers from the south because they’re known for being the best at this kind of work and can withstand high temperatures.

José and Onny Ríos are cousins from Concepción de María in Choluteca who cut sugar cane for the same company. José took a short break and as he was sharpening his machaca said, “southerners are quite tough, my cousin and I harvested 1,200 meters, 600 each, but if you’re not used to harvesting that much and one day you pull it off, you’re not coming to work the following day because you’re going to be exhausted”.

José stated that with the money they earn in harvest season they buy fertilizer and herbicide to grow corn and other crops in the town where he lives, “it’s difficult to find a job there”, he said. When harvest season is over they go back to Santa María to work the land and grow corn so they can harvest it in October. “If you don’t use fertilizer, the land won’t yield any crops, and last year the cost of one quintal of fertilizer was between 1,100 and 1,200 lempiras (45 and 48 USD respectively)”. President Xiomara has increased the prices of all products”, said José.

A supplier of fertilizer said that the price of a quintal of urea increased from 480-500 to 1000-1,200 lempiras in less than two years due to a container shortage in Asia, the surge in oil prices, and the war between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is one of the largest exporters of fertilizer after China. The war led to a price increase of more than 100%. That data has been an excuse for President Castro to avoid any complaints from producers in the industry.

In the sugar plantation, we also met Wilmer Ramirez, a machaquero from San Manuel, who explained that most workers don’t have a choice and they have to endure the harsh conditions in the harvest season. Many machaqueros, however, are aware that they don’t get a fair wage. “In San Manuel, for example, a construction worker earns between 250 and 300 lempiras (10-12 USD) for a day of work from 6 am to 4 pm. In the plantations, we earn 70 cents for every meter of sugar cane and in order to earn 300 lempiras a day we have to cut approximately 430 meters, but most of us don’t make it. Sometimes we earn 3600 lempiras (146 USD) a week, but we have to work on Sundays and that day we earn twice as much. Sometimes we work until 7 pm when a particular plot of land has to be finished and we use lighting from the machinery”.

Another young man who listened to his coworkers said “some of our coworkers get good wages depending on how hard they work, some earn 6,000 lempiras a week, but others earn just 2,500 or 3,000. At times we put in a lot of work and only earn 200 lempiras a day because the sugar cane is tangled and little progress is made”.

El brazo de la cargadora deposita la caña en los vagones de vehículo que se encarga de llevarlo hasta la planta procesadora. Foto CC/Amilcar Izaguirre
Sugar cane is loaded into the freight car and is then taken to the processing plant. Photo CC/Almilcar Izaguirre

José Ríos says that refineries offer some benefits to workers that are not from the area. They offer workers accommodation at no cost and a subsidy for food expenses. A worker usually spends 800 lempiras on food each week, but the company pays 500 and the worker 300 lempiras. Honduran companies also hire machaqueros from Nicaragua. They come to Honduras because they earn a higher wage here and even though it’s not a fair wage, it’s worst in Nicaragua due to the lower minimum wage there, said Victor Zepeda,

Nicaraguan worker and native of Nueva Chinandega who has worked four harvest seasons in Honduras.

“We earn a bit more in Honduras, up to seven thousand lempiras for two weeks of work, while in Nicaragua we only earn six thousand córdobas, and for 100 lempiras I get 130 or 140 córdobas in exchange”, said Victor. He also said that in Nicaragua under the regime of Daniel Ortega, there’s a deduction for social security and it’s mandatory even for those who have informal jobs in agriculture. “If a worker earns six thousand córdobas for two weeks of work there’s a deduction of 500 córdobas for social security”, added Victor.

At the side of the road between the fields of sugar cane, three women are preparing food for workers. On the menu, there’s chicken with plantain chips, beef, and pork at a price range of 60 and 100 lempiras. Rosalina Hernández owns the diner, she’s 58 years old and has been selling food in harvest season for 31 years. She says that she cooks approximately 200 meals a day and to manage it she sleeps two hours a day, she goes to bed at 1 am and wakes up at 3 am to prepare the food for the next day.

She hired two female workers from the south seven years ago, Sandra Aguilera from the municipality of Orocuina and Karen Castillo from Pespire, both in Choluteca. They’re the only workers who have stayed for a long period of time at the diner.

“Southerners are the only ones who can endure the heat”, said Rosalina while she watched Karen fry plantain chips on a stove outside the tent as the midday sun shined from above.

About 100 meters from the diner is a first-aid station where Martha Ruth Gonzales Ayala, a nurse employed by CAHSA, carries out her duties. She tends to no less than 400 people including machaqueros, water carriers, and contractors. Martha says that she has had to help workers regain their consciousness after they faint due to the high temperature or physical exhaustion from cutting sugar cane. She gives them water and a saline solution to avoid dehydration, and she patches them up when they need stitches, usually on a daily basis.

Martha is a single mother of two boys, one is in high school and the other in elementary school. She lives in the community of Guacamaya between El Progreso and Santa Rita. She has to wake up at 4 am and take the bus with other workers who travel from Santa Rita to San Manuel to be on time at work. She works under a tent where she sets up her kit that contains different kinds of medication, pills for headaches, dizziness, and other supplies to mend the workers’ wounds.

A group of machaqueros covered in ashes after burning the fields wait in line in front of a yellow cylindrical fridge. Martha handed out a saline solution evenly to the thirsty workers, it’s red and tastes like fruit. The workers drank approximately 450 ml of the solution on improvised plastic cups made from soda bottles. “It’s not enough, but it makes them feel a little bit better”, said Martha. She prepares two bottles of saline solution every day, but most of the time it’s not enough.

“We started handing out saline solution this year, but it’s a trial and if we get the results the company is looking for, it’s going to be permanently available for the coming harvest seasons”, said Martha.

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