Revised Bonsucro standard agreed

In July 2014 the Bonsucro Production Standard underwent significant revision. Bonsucro is a multi-stakeholder organisation which currently certifies 38 sugarcane mills and the farms that supply them (the certified mills are based mainly in Brazil, although it has members in nineteen other countries). The certification process is carried out by independent auditors against the criteria contained in the Standard, and the resultant Bonsucro-certified sugar or ethanol purchased by food & drink manufacturers and fuel distributors for a fee agreed between the two parties.

The revisions were required by the organisation’s constitution, which specify that the Standard should be reviewed at least every five years. With the last version being launched in March 2011, it was decided by the Bonsucro Board that a review should begin the following year, and a Standard Revision Committee composed from its membership. At various points, this included personnel from Bacardi, BP, Ethical Sugar (myself – Ben Richardson), Nordzucker, Puglisi Farming, Unilever and UNICA. Following consultations with Bonsucro members, the receipt of public comments and the results of pilot audits undertaken at six mills, the recommended revisions were proposed by the Standard Revision Committee and accepted by all 109 voting members in an online poll. The new Standard will become effective for non-certified members from September 2014; those already certified must be in compliance with the new Standard by September 2015.

So what has changed? Firstly, some new criteria have been added which were not in the Standard before. These include checks on water usage rights (1.2.1 and 1.2.3), working hours (2.3.2), overtime payments to workers (2.3.3), cane delivery payments to farmers (2.3.4) and banned agro-chemicals (4.1.6). These new criteria seek to address some of the complex challenges in the sugarcane industry.

For example, it is common during the harvest season for workers to endure physically demanding labour, working long shifts and with few days off. The criterion on working hours thus states that employees should not work longer than the maximum level set by legislation, and if there is no law on working hours, then they should not exceed 60 hours in a week – a guideline taken from the International Labour Organisation. One tension here is that some employees, especially those on piece-rate payments, often want to work longer hours so as to earn as much as they can. For this reason, there is also an added piece of guidance in the criterion on wages which specifies that the minimum wage should be paid based on normal legal hours (typically 48 hours a week), meaning that workers should not be expected to work longer than this in order to receive their basic entitlement. Although these changes are unlikely to override the patterns of incentives and threats that have established ‘super-exploitation’ as a norm, they may help signal to employers that the amount of time workers spend on site should not be treated as completely elastic.

Secondly, some criteria have been made core requirements, whereas before they were non-core (to become Bonsucro-certified, all core criteria in the Standard and 80% of non-core criteria must be met). Those that have now become core requirements are: demonstrating legal title to land and water (1.2.1), assessment and mitigation of health and safety risks (2.2.2), worker access to drinking water and first aid provision (2.2.5 and 2.2.6), existence of a contract or equivalent for all workers (2.4.1) and zero application of banned agro-chemicals (4.1.6). There are now sixteen core criteria in total, compared to fourteen in the previous Standard (some criteria which were core have been relegated to non-core status, such as absolute limits on fertilizer application).

Thirdly, some criteria have had their values changed or been removed. One of the most important here from the labour perspective is the removal of the (non-core) criterion which stated that basic human and labour rights should be applied to 95% of suppliers and contractors. This was removed because: (a) it created confusion about which suppliers and contractors should be included, as mills typically have large numbers of commercial relationships; (b) provided a weak guarantee that rights were being upheld as it accepted contractual codes of conduct as proof of compliance; and (c) risked undermining the supplementary labour requirements by treating all contract workers under this single criterion, even those involved in essential sugarcane operations like harvesting. The new Standard instead makes clear that the labour rights and other provisions covered in sections 2.1 to 2.4 apply to all workers on the premises of the mill and the farms in the scope of certification, regardless of whether they are directly employed by the mill/farmer or contracted by a third-party. For those workers based on farms outside the scope of certification, a note was added to the general rules which specifies that mills must demonstrate that their cane suppliers fulfil the requirements of the Bonsucro Standard.

What remains to be done? From my perspective, the most immediate task is to translate the Standard into effective and thorough audits. This means paying attention to the most at-risk group of workers – seasonal, migrant field labour – and ensuring that their basic human and labour rights are upheld. The most important criterion of all in the Standard remains the obligation to follow national law (1.1.1), which often offers adequate protection to workers but is simply not enforced. To this end, engagement with other stakeholders including trade unions, regulatory agencies, and community leaders – either within the audit process or through outreach activities – could help identify breaches of law and build pressure to set them right. More ambitious changes to the Standard itself, such as a living wage, should be explored for future revisions and the experience of other ISEAL members in implementing the agreed methodology monitored closely. Finally, I believe that the Bonsucro certification protocol should be amended. At present the mills nominate which farms are included in the scope of certification and which are excluded; the quid pro quo is that they can only declare a proportionate amount of their sugar/ethanol as Bonsucro-certified. Changing the rules so that mills have to work towards certifying 100% of their supply-base will help ensure that all working practices in the sugarcane supply-chain are covered in the audit, not just those that the mill is willing to reveal.