On 27 May, the Sindh Sugar Mills Workers Federation issued an statement on the tragedy that saw ten people died at the Chashma sugar mills in DI Khan. The statement reiterates, from the workers’ viewpoint, two major faults in the sugar sector of Pakistan.
First is the environmental issue. The Federation says: “The discharging of untreated waste from the industries is very common in sugar mills which not only pollute the environment but also danger (sic) for people around the mills.” As to add insult to injury, the Federation continues: “In Pakistan the sugar mills are owned by very influential and political people who does not respect the laws, they manage easily to escape and do not get any punishment which encourage them not to abide by the law.”
Disregard for environmental concerns is a grave allegation against the global sugar sector, where examples of bad practices abound, while best practices – to the writer’s chagring, because he considers himself part of this sector – are seldom noticed and, worst at all, always thought first as a financial expenditure to be avoided.
The political connection to ignore basic environmental and social standards is neither new or strange in the sector. For instance, in the writer’s home town of Chiclayo, Peru, from where he writes this, a couple of alcohol factories, which use molasses, discharge their untreated effluents directly into the public sewage system which, some ten kilometres away, emptied itself into the Pacific. Earlier this year (2014), Health authorities closed access to two beaches in the area because of the pollution levels and the strong and foul smells emanating from the discharges. Nothing has been done to the moment of writing.
A second comment made by the Sindh Federation is about labour contracts and working conditions inside the mills. They say: “Majority of workers are casual or contact (sic) workers who does (sic) not enjoy their due rights. Their working conditions are precarious; they (are) never supplied (with) adequate protective devices and have no training on safety and accidents.”
The deterioration of working conditions, through outsourcing and casualisation, is becoming more and more common in the global sugar industry, especially in those cane-based sugar producing countries. The negative impact of these labour practices on health and safety conditions has been documented by the ongoing work of the IUF Global Sugar Program, and several reports on the subject have been posted on this site.