I saw the Bloomberg documentary Deadly Brew, the Human Toll of Ethanol, which aired last Thursday and I have to agree with some of the criticisms that UNICA levels at the film. The documentary, which focused on the working conditions of cane cutters in Brazil, gave both sides but seemed to favor the workers a little more than the owners. As you can see in the video above, they do that close up thing to one of the owners, a technique that makes anyone look evil. In the end, whatever they got wrong or one-sided, I am not too concerned with labor conditions of Brazilian ethanol worker. Let me explain.
The documentary starts out by saying most sugar cane in Brazil is cut by hand. At the end however, the documentary says industry projects that will change very soon, up to 80 percent replaced by machines and the remaining 20 percent will run the machines. So, even if there is a problem, cutting by hand is going away. The documentary also mentions there are laws in place, enforcement groups, fines and even unions. The laws are ignored, says the documentary, enforcement lax, fines too low and unions (while numerous) weak on the national level. I don't mean to seem flippant but that's about as good as it gets in the world.
For countries like China, which wants to be a major ethanol exporter, you won't have to use the term virtual slavery when talking about working conditions: It will be slavery! If this were a perfect world, I would agree with EU's interest in trying to change the working conditions around the world. In reality, the best I hope for is some kind of label on the country of origin for ethanol in hopes of shining a light on the problem. We don't know where our food comes from, so I won't hold my breath. What do you think readers: am I wrong to think weak unions and low fines is not a major problem?