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January 27, 2012

Sugarcane Producers in Parana Scramble to Find Workers

With a booming Brazilian economy, labor shortages are starting to be a concern for the agricultural sector. Sugarcane production and processing in northwestern Parana has been losing workers to the expanding poultry processing industry to such an extent that they are now importing workers from other Brazilian states to work in the sugarcane fields. It's no wonder why workers prefer the poultry industry because it pays better, has better benefits, the work continues year round and it is a lot easier job than cutting sugarcane for 12 hours a day under the blazing tropical sun.

The poultry industry in Parana continues to expand year after year and the industry now employs about 550,000 workers directly and indirectly or about 5% of the state's population. The sugar/ethanol sector is also expanding and they employ about 80,000 workers in the state.

The completion for labor is more intense in the northwest quarter of the state where half of the state's 620,000 hectares of sugarcane are grown. This is also the region where 13 of the state's 32 chicken processing facilities are also located. In 2011, 1.4 billion kilograms of chicken was processed in the state and these 13 processing facilities were responsible for 42% of the total.

One of the main drawbacks for working in the sugarcane fields is the fact that it is seasonal work and when the harvest ends in November or December, the workers generally return to their home state and hope they will have a job again when the harvest resumes in March or April. The transient nature of the work makes it difficult for the workers to obtain credit in local banks or to participate in some of the government programs for affordable housing.

As a sign of the robust Brazilian economy, sugarcane producers in Parana as recently as five years ago would announce they were hiring for the coming harvest season and the response would be so great that they could choose which workers they wanted to hire. That is not the case any longer and sugar/ethanol mills have had to improvise transportation networks in an attempt to bring in workers from nearby cities.

The demand for unskilled labor to cut sugarcane by hand is expected to decline as more of the sugarcane is harvested mechanically. The federal government has mandated that within several years most of the sugarcane must be harvested mechanically. The new requirements were put in place to reduce the traditional practice of burning the sugarcane fields before harvest. The burning was done to remove the dry leaves before the workers entered the field, but it resulted in increased air pollution and respiratory problems for nearby residents. The burning also released large amounts of carbon which the government is working to reduce.