The Front

Sweet Revenge for Sugar Workers

CUTTING FLORIDA SUGAR CANE, a job carried out almost exclusively by Caribbean migrant workers, is singularly dangerous and difficult labor. And the U.S. sugar cane industry is reputed to be one of the country's most exploitative employers.

Recently, however, sugar cane cutters won a significant legal victory over their employers. A Palm Beach County court ruled on June 25 that six Florida sugar cane companies have cheated thousands of workers out of their wages during the last half- decade.

 Finding that the industry clearly violated its employment contracts, the court determined that no trial was necessary on the merits of the case and granted the plaintiffs summary judgment. The results of a hearing held in late July will determine the amount of damages owed by the companies, estimated by the plaintiffs' lawyers at $51 million. About 15,000 sugar cane cutters employed during harvest seasons between 1987-88 and 1990-91 will benefit from the suit.

 "The industry has fundamentally mistreated workers for many years," asserts Bruce Goldstein, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Farmworker Justice Fund. "The pressure will cause the companies to make some changes in the way they treat workers."

The companies named in the class action suit, Bygrave v. Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, include the United States Sugar Corporation, the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, the Atlantic Sugar Association, the Okeelanta Corporation and the Osceola Farms Corporation.

U.S. Sugar, the largest of the Florida sugar growers, is appealing the Bygrave decision. If the ruling holds up, it could cost the company as much as $20 million in back wages.

The growers had contracted to pay workers an average of $5.30 per ton of cane cut. The judge found that they had actually paid an average of $3.75 per ton using a so- called "task rate" payment system.

Task rate is often used by employers to deliberately obscure the means for determining wages, preventing workers from detecting underpayment. Sugar cane, which is grown in rows, is hand-cut by workers, many of whom cut between seven and ten rows in a day. The growers pay for each row of cane, claiming to decide each row's value based on individual and unquantifiable characteristics. Regardless of the value of individual rows, however, past agreements made between the growers and the U.S. Department of Labor guarantee cutters an hourly wage. Bygrave alleged that there is no valid means of determining payment other than the sole factor of tonnage cut per hour and that the task rate had been used to cheat workers.

 The sugar industry has been employing Jamaican and other Caribbean cutters since 1944. Through the Department of Labor's H2-A visa program for temporary foreign workers, sugar cane growers are required to make jobs available to U.S. citizens and legal aliens before they may request Caribbean workers. The growers discourage the small number of U.S. applicants from taking the jobs. Most workers in South Florida are not interested in the positions because they are aware of the dangerous and exploitative conditions associated with cutting cane.

The growers prefer a Caribbean workforce, cane-cutter advocates claim, because they are able to deport workers should a labor dispute arise. In the 1980s, the Atlantic Sugar Association and the Okeelanta Corporation each deported over 350 striking workers.

 Cane cutter advocates hope the decision will help change the industry's labor practices. As for government action, however, Goldstein says there is not much hope. "The DOL decided a long time ago not to enforce laws on behalf of H2 workers. Because the government has refused to enforce these laws, the workers themselves have to hire attorneys to do the government's job."

 Goldstein, while not serving as council in the Bygrave case, is himself representing cutters in several lawsuits against sugar cane companies and the Department of Labor, including an antitrust case against the companies for fixing wages and other unlawful conduct.

 Pressure to improve the industry's treatment of workers may also come from other sources. The General Accounting Office is currently completing an investigation resulting from a July 1991 Congressional staff report criticizing the Labor Department's failure to prevent and punish other unlawful conduct regarding sugar cane cutters' wages. And the Florida Department of Insurance is investigating the sugar cane growers' health insurance program for foreign workers.

 Otis Wragg of Wragg and Associates Public Relations, the firm representing the Florida Sugar Cane League, says that the sugar cane companies are "scrambling around to make orders" for mechanical harvesters that will replace the sugar cane cutters. "We are waiting to see whether the Bygrave suit will result in reduced rates of the companies' participation in Jamaica and therefore fewer H2 workers," says Wragg. "It will put a lot of them out of work and that's really sad."

United States Sugar Corporation plans to eliminate 1,100 cutters and replace them with eleven mechanical harvesters this fall. "The decision is in the hands of the professional labor activists who are trying to use class action lawsuits to destroy the program," claims U.S. Sugar executive vice president James Terrill.

U.S. Sugar was indicted for slavery in 1942 for its treatment of African-American workers. The company began hiring Jamaican cutters the following season. "We are very proud of the role that these jobs in Florida play in raising the income level of West Indian farm workers," claims Terrill. "We don't want to replace them with machines."

In response to industry claims that the lawsuits will lead to job loss for migrant workers, Goldstein argues, "These lawsuits are attempting to secure minimum rights guaranteed under law for workers. Instead of complying with those laws, the growers are opting to mechanize. I think it's absurd that the League now acts as if it's concerned about workers' welfare - where were they during the last 50 years?"n

 - Julie Gozan


Land to the Inuit

THE INUIT PEOPLE may soon become the largest landowners in Canada, with proprietorship over an area larger than the state of New Mexico. After more than 15 years of negotiations, the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN), representing the Inuit people of the Northwest Territories, and the government of Canada concluded the Nunavut Settlement Area Agreement-in-Principle in December 1991.

The agreement partitions the tremendous expanse of land known as the Northwest Territories (NWT), an area made up of land in northwest Canada - Arctic tundra, the sub-Arctic boreal forests of the Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie Valley areas and the chain of islands known as the Arctic Archipelago - which have not been claimed by any province.

In 1974, the Canadian government announced its willingness to negotiate land claim agreements with indigenous peoples with which it had not signed treaties. The Inuit presented a land claim plan to the government in 1976.

In the proposed agreement for the demarcation of Nunavut, which means "our land" in Inuktitut, the Inuit relinquish aboriginal rights, title and interests to lands and waters outside of the settlement area in exchange for constitutionally protected rights and benefits set out in the agreement. The constitutional protections in the agreement cover land, money, wildlife and environmental management, as well as social, economic and political development.

 The Inuit will gain title to approximately 136,000 square miles of land, including subsurface rights to oil, gas and minerals on 14,000 square miles of the land. The government will also pay the Inuit of Nunavut $580 million over a period of 14 years.

The agreement recognizes Inuit rights to hunt and trap wildlife on lands and waters throughout the Nunavut Settlement Area, and stipulates that the federal government will cooperate with the Inuit to establish three national parks in Nunavut. It guarantees the Inuit: equal authority with public government to manage the land, water, offshore and wildlife of the Nunavut Settlement Area, and to assess and evaluate the impacts of development on the environment; the right to negotiate with industry for economic and social benefits from non-renewable resource development; and a commitment from the territorial government to train Inuit for public sector employment within the Nunavut Settlement Area.

 Confirmation of the agreement will set a significant precedent for indigenous self- determination in Canada, according to Rodrigo Contreras of the World Council for Indigenous Peoples. "Nunavut has a direct impact on future land claims because it sets the parameters for the next negotiation. The importance of this settlement is that it establishes minimum standards for indigenous rights," Contreras says. The TFN has held tenaciously to the principle that a land claim accord must not only return land appropriated from Canada's indigenous people but also provide for autonomous governance within Nunavut.

Much of the delay in negotiations stemmed from the Canadian government's resistance to guaranteeing the self-governance of Nunavut in a final agreement. The TFN refused to sign the Agreement-in-Principle without the inclusion of Article 4, a clause that states the federal government will support the creation of a Nunavut legislative assembly within five years of the transfer of ownership of the land.

The TFN has repeatedly stated that Nunavut's public government would be consistent with Canadian constitutional traditions. For the federal government, the negotiations have constituted a means of persuading other Canadian indigenous groups to temper demands for forms of self-government which in some cases do not recognize the legitimacy of the Canadian parliament. The TFN also points out that the federal government stands to benefit from the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement by obtaining clarity of title to land and natural resources; expanded management of the Arctic's environment; and national and international recognition for its willingness to negotiate with indigenous people.

The agreement will be subject to a ratification vote by all eligible Inuit above the age of 16 in November 1992. James Eetoolook, president of TFN, says that although the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement "does not deliver all that Inuit want or need," the organization supports the agreement "because we are convinced ... that it moves Inuit forward along the long path of self-determination."

Other indigenous peoples who share land within the proposed Nunavut Territory, including the Dene, Metis, Inuvialut and Northern Quebec Inuit, will be affected by the agreement. Although a section of the Agreement-in-Principle states that issues relating to overlapping interests between TFN and other aboriginal people will be addressed before a final agreement is reached, indigenous groups which are concerned about the boundaries of the settlement area, the surrender of aboriginal title and the constitutional protection of Canadian aboriginal land claim settlements have expressed opposition to the Inuit- Canadian agreement.

 The major point of controversy relates to the division of the Northwest Territories. Two previous boundary agreements between the Dene and the Inuit, negotiated in 1985 and 1987, have already collapsed. Inuit negotiators and the Canadian government agreed to the most recent Nunavut land claims boundary in 1991 without the consent of the Dene Nation. The proposed boundary, which begins at the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border on the 60th parallel and proceeds through the 80th parallel to the North Pole, was approved by a 54 percent yes vote in a NWT-wide plebiscite on May 4 despite vocal Dene opposition.

While the Dene Nation states that it "does not oppose division of the Northwest Territories or the desire of the Inuit for their own government in a Nunavut Territory," it is firmly opposed to the boundary. It contends that the Dene hold rightful claim to 220 square miles at Contwoyto Lake and 10 square miles at Healy Lake that have been included in the Nunavut settlement.

The Chipewyan Dene of Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba have launched a lawsuit against the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, citing Canada's Comprehensive Land Claims Policy, which states, "Where more than one claimant group utilizes common areas of land and resources, and the claimants cannot agree on boundaries ... no lands will be granted to any group in the contested area until the dispute is resolved."

Whether the establishment of Nunavut stands to hinder or promote the rights of other indigenous people remains an important question in the minds of many Canadian Arctic people. Most other residents of the NWT are either indifferent or opposed to the idea of Nunavut. Consultants hired by the federal and territorial governments have estimated that the Western Arctic stands to lose 20 percent of its civil service positions, or nearly 1,000 jobs, and that start-up costs for a Nunavut government could exceed $500 million.

 But only Inuit, in the three Nunavut regions of Baffin, the Keewatin and Kitikmeot, will vote on the Nunavut Settlement Area Agreement-in-Principle this November. According to Paul Okalik, a spokesperson from the TFN resource center, the TFN expects that the settlement will receive "almost unanimous approval." If 75 percent of registered Inuit beneficiaries agree to surrendering aboriginal title to land outside the boundary agreement, the land claim will be ratified, Nunavut will be realized and an Inuit homeland will replace colonial administration in the Eastern Arctic.n

- Julie Gozan


Island of Poison

CORPORATE MALFEASANCE and government neglect have led to the occurrence of a disproportionately high number of birth defects in children born on Walpole Island in Canada, indigenous residents of the island charge.

Approximately 2,000 people from the Ottawa, Pottawanamee and Ujibwe tribes live on Walpole Island, which is located at the mouth of the St. Clair River as it enters Lake St. Clair, just north of Detroit. The St. Clair River is an outlet of Lake Huron and serves as an international waterway and a source of water for commercial, industrial and domestic uses.

 Residents say they have suffered from the effects of chemical spills from nearby "Chemical Valley" in Sarnia, Ontario. Dow Chemical, DuPont, Ethyl Chemical, Polysar, Novacore, Imperial Oil, Shell Oil and Esso Petroleum and Chemical all operate in Sarnia. Chemicals discharged into the St. Clair include mercury, chlorinated organics, volatile hydrocarbons, PCBs and lead.

"Since 1986, [the companies] average 100 spills a week," says Mike Williams of the Walpole Island Heritage Center. "When there's a serious [spill], we've had to shut down our water treatment plant." Since 1986, the island has had to shut down the treatment plant 16 times because of extreme water contamination.

 "There's no question that the island community has a very high incidence of birth defects and there's a very high incidence of cancer," says Joe Cummins, a professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario.

 The Province of Ontario convened a panel to investigate the spills' impact on the health - particularly reproductive health - of people in the St. Clair area. The panel released the St. Clair River Reproductive Health Study last year. It concluded that the rate of birth defects in the St. Clair River area was no higher than the Provincial average, according to Layne Zerbeek, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health.

 Cummins, however, charges that the panel purposefully refrained from studying health effects on Walpole in order to minimize the amount of adverse health effects recorded. "The evidence is clear that the incidence of birth defects on the island is excessive, but [the panel] excluded Walpole [from the study] because that would give the study positive results, and they did not want positive results," Cummins says.

 The panel looked into hospital databases to determine provincial birth defect rates, and then broke down Southwest Ontario by region. Researchers made phone calls to families of children with birth defects to obtain additional information.

 Zerbeek says that the study did not look beyond regions. "They did not get into specifics like Walpole Island, tiny little areas like that," Zerbeek says. "They could have phoned to Walpole Island but that doesn't come out in the data."

 One reason residents of Walpole Island may be affected by the chemical pollution to a greater extent than residents in the surrounding area is that much of their diet consists of locally caught fish, duck, muskrat, deer and miscellaneous wild meats. According to an island study, 91 percent of the community consumes wild meat. Wild game contaminated by pollutants may pass on toxics to the residents of the island.

 The marshes and wetlands at the mouth of the St. Clair River, the St. Clair flats and the complex of islands around Walpole Island are one of the most unique and valuable eco-regions in the Great Lakes and North America, according to the St. Clair River International Citizens Network, a public interest group working to reduce pollution from Chemical Valley.

 The region has more than 34,000 acres of wetlands, mostly in the Flats-Walpole area, and is home to diverse wildlife, including the bald eagle, lake sturgeon, prairie fringed orchid, eastern fox snake, eastern massassauga rattlesnake and the black rat snake.

 "The river water, fish habitat and sediment have been impaired due to the discharge of nutrients and toxic substances from industrial and municipal point sources, nonpoint sources and inplace pollutants," according to the 1989 Report on Great Lakes Water Quality, issued by the International Joint Commission. "The marsh acts as a big sponge and soaks in all the contaminants," says Williams.

Fish advisories for the river and Lake St. Clair have increased in recent years. Swimming advisories have been placed intermittently on beaches in Sarnia Bay and just downstream of Ontario Hydro's Lambton Generating Station, according to Williams.

 "The fish are diseased - some have large sores on them," says Ed Isaac, a Walpole resident. "This year I noticed that not only are a lot of fish diseased, but they are also deformed."

 "We think it's scandalous that these spills just go on constantly," John Jackson of the Citizens Network says. Earlier this year, Walpole residents closed down the island for a day and demonstrated in downtown Sarnia at Polysar, one of the chemical companies responsible for recent spills.

 The Canadian and U.S. governments have been slow to respond to the situation and have only recently published a report on contamination of the St. Clair. No clean-up activity plan has been drawn up or implemented.

 "They haven't got to a discussion of what the clean-up plan will be - there has only been discussion of what the problem is," says Jackson.

 According to Jackson, the Canadian government's solution to the problem is to construct a pipeline from the clean water in Lake Huron, past "Chemical Valley," to Walpurg, Canada and Walpole Island.

"Even if you don't drink the contaminated water, people are still eating contaminated food, particularly people on Walpole Island," Jackson says. "I think it's disgusting that taxpayers pay money for a pipeline when it should be the responsibility of the company to stop spilling stuff into the river."

- Ben Lilliston