Bloody Rumday: The Boycott against Flor de Caña
Time and time again, rum producers have been publicly shamed for the working conditions their employees have to endure. The media’s current case is Flor de Caña. American bartender Bobby Heugel’s boycott, which he skillfully announced via social media, started a debate on how much political awareness is required in a bar. Our author dug deeper to find out that shunning a single producer can indeed be the beginning of a long, transformative process.
Are we allowed to work with spirits that were produced under inhumane circumstances? This question is relevant once again thanks to an article published on Munchies, Vice’s food platform. The Nicaraguan rum producer Flor de Caña is the focus of the article, seeing as plantation employees are dying of chronic kidney disease in high numbers, usually at a young age. Earlier this month Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge, announced his plans to boycott Flor de Caña via Instagram. He wants to force the management into dealing with these serious allegations, and consequently take action.
IMAGE AND REALITY
Flor de Caña is a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas and Nicaragua Sugar. Its website showcases a picturesque image movie: strong hands reaching for healthy sugar cane in slow motion, goldbrown rum proudly displayed in thick casks in the end. What they don’t show: sick men, living off of dialysis, and a fine mist of pesticides over sugar cane fields.
Back in 2014 Heugel published an article thematizing ecological sustainability and social responsibility in the bar, which is well worth a read. Underneath his Instagram post of empty Flor de Caña he explains: “For years, we have leaned on the cost-effective nature of Flor de Caña to generate profits for the bar. Now, it is seems more clear why Flor de Caña’s price might be so low, as there seems to be very little concern for those who work in the fields. I estimate this change will easily cost us $10,000 (Editorial Note: we suspect that the number refers to a year, Heugel doesn’t specify) as a bar going forward, as we are by far one of the biggest consumers of Flor de Caña I know of.” Apparently, his clean conscience is worth $10,000. Let’s take a look at the facts.
WHEN PESTICIDES DON’T JUST KILL INSECTS
Sugarcane production and its consequences first became the subject of criticism in a discussion that centered around agro fuels (think “E10”) that governments or lobbyists like to hail as a sustainable alternative to conventional fuel. Terminally ill workers, soil that’s been so drained, it becomes unusable for decades, and the resulting food shortage, etc. Collateral damages that lawmakers don’t consider to be noteworthy.
‘CDK’ – chronic kidney disease of untraditional causes, this is the diagnosis for over half the deaths, men who often did not live to see past 40 and leave behind young widows and children. Munchies conducted its research in the exemplary village of Chichgalpa. The cause of death led back to CDK in 75% of the dead males, aged 35 to 55.
Studies completed by the Boston University and the Trabanino worker safety program in El Salvador have shown that kidney failure in the laborers has to do with the strong stress the body is put under due to the pesticides. It is traceable to unacceptable working condition: dehydration, overtime, and the hourlong (unprotected!) work in the blazing sun. Years ago the Nicaragua Forum began its work in Germany, with the knowledge of CDK amongst plantation workers it began, amongst others, financing medical help for those affected. Spokesperson Rudi Kurz explains: “As is usually the case, the background and problems that connect CDK to the work are complex and complicated. This problem, plantation workers and other humans who live close to the plantation and end up suffering from kidney problems, exists in all of Middle America. Nicaragua Sugar and its Flor de Caña is only one company, or rather, one product”. One of many, mind you.
DAVID AGAINST GOLIATH
ANAIRC, an organization that represents aggrieved parties, fights for the compensation of sick workers in Nicaragua. It’s been calling for the boycott of Flor de Caña, as well as its parent company Grupo Pellas, for years. That’s barely 400 workers going up against a family business that’s responsible for 13% of the country’s gross domestic product. One can imagine how that’s going: the lawsuit against the company (which has close ties to the government, of course) has been stuck in court since 2007. No success so far. Regular protests against the sugar cane production and an 11-day long march, organized and completed by the plantation workers, into the capital of Managua: all have lead to nothing.
Flor de Caña is by far not the only employer that Munchies has pressured into a tight corner with its newly enflamed accusations. The company is engaged in numerous social projects, building hospitals and schools, and rum minister Edward Hamilton called it a “fair producer” (compared to its contemporaries). Nicaragua Forum Heidelberg’s Rudi Kurz agrees: “One cannot claim that Pellas/Nicaragua Sugar is acting particularly undignified towards those afflicted. Nonetheless, the whole sugar industry of Middle America has blocked itself off against the necessary changes in regards to the production conditions, because they want to expand their position further, and on a global scale. In an effort to reduce productions cost they use subcontractors and suppliers, that don’t adhere to social security and workers’ protection”. Over the first weekend of December, Flor de Caña unceremoniously released a statement. Presumably because William Grant & Sons (the rum’s large US distributor) and their global brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey joined the debate, demanding answers. Don’t go looking for more than the usual denials and references to overly high standards, as well as the fact that the suppliers – and thus, the plantation management – are hired externally, in the one-page long statement.
FLOR DE CAÑA IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
There’s actual blood sticking to our shakers. And it’s most definitely too easy to vilify and use Flor de Caña as the single scapegoat. Boycotting a single company will surely send a signal, and yet it won’t solve the fundamental problem as long as other industry giants fly below the public radar and continue to operate under inhumane conditions, paying hush money, and punctually rolling out social engagements to help clean up their image. MIXOLOGY contacted Flor de Caña’s German distributor, Eggers & Franke, but we have yet to hear back from them.
Instead, the bar industry will now have to consider the question of sustainability and social responsibility very carefully. Longterm, international, sustainable solutions such as transparent production processes, a reliable supervision authority, minimum wage, and social security – all that sounds impossible. About as impossible as being forced to pass on the higher spirit prices on to the guests. And yet, that is the necessary step to take towards a new, much overdue responsibility.
We’re excited to hear your opinions in the comments!
Translation by Liv Fleischhacker