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Labor abuse and work accidents on plantations of Cameroon’s largest sugar producer

  • Industrial agriculture companies, considered drivers of economic growth in Cameroon, are also a source of conflict for workers and farmers following an increase in workplace accidents and the growing impact this industry has on the environment.
  • With increasing accidents over the years, the industrial agriculture sector alone accounted for 26.4% of work-related accidents recorded in Cameroon in 2020, according to an estimate by the Cameroonian institution overseeing social protection, the CNPS.
  • According to estimates from the seasonal workers’ union, the Cameroon Sugar Corporation (SOSUCAM), which holds a monopoly on sugar production in the country, is responsible for about a hundred accidents per year, some leading to death, on its plantations and in its factories.
  • Local NGOs also accuse the company of polluting rivers and soil as well as destroying village plantations. Above all, the company is notorious for its glaring violations in applying Cameroonian labor, social security, and environmental protection legislation.

NKOTENG, Cameroon — At the Cameroon Sugar Corporation (Société Sucriere du Cameroun, SOSUCAM), the year 2023 came to a close on a grim note: the death of a man named Mballa Olomo.

The temporary worker lost his life as a result of burns suffered in a work accident that occurred in December at one of the company’s plants based in Nkoteng, a Cameroonian town north of Yaoundé, the nation’s capital. The 43-year-old town native had been a seasonal worker at the industrial agriculture company for about ten years. The company is a subsidiary of the French group SOMDIAA, which manufactures and markets food commodities and runs six sugar cane plantations across Africa.

The accident that cost Olomo his life is one of many that have occurred at SOSUCAM. Accidents are countless on the company’s plantations in Nkoteng and Mbandjock, where the company grows sugar cane on nearly 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of agricultural land. A recent report by the company’s seasonal workers’ union revealed that about a hundred work accidents occurred on the company’s plantations between November 2022 and June 2023.

Last April, a vehicle transporting workers and moving at high speed overturned on the Nkoteng plantation, injuring 35 people, two of whom were seriously injured.

A seasonal worker (a cane cutter) on the SOSUCAM sugar cane plantation in Nkoteng.
A seasonal worker (a cane cutter) on the SOSUCAM sugar cane plantation in Nkoteng. Image by Yannick Kenné.

In Cameroon, the government encourages the expansion of industrial agriculture companies considering them to play an essential role in development. The government also believes that they are an indispensable tool in feeding the growing urban population and that they promote the country’s economic growth. However, due to violations of Cameroonian law, industry workers are paid poorly and work in precarious conditions.

With increasing accidents over the years, the industrial agriculture sector alone accounted for 26.4% of work-related accidents recorded in Cameroon in 2020, according to an estimate by the Cameroonian institution overseeing social protection, the CNPS.

These companies are also frequently at odds with the local communities and small-scale farmers over land issues, farmland degradation, soil and water pollution, as well as biodiversity loss.

These conflicts between the industrial agriculture plantations and neighboring communities are continuous, whether it be in Nkoteng or Mbandjock, where SOSUCAM operates, or in Edéa or Dibombari, where the Cameroonian palm oil producer SOCAPALM owns sweeping hectares of land planted with oil palms. The same scenario can be seen in the town of Tibati, where the company Tawfiq Agro Industry, which plans to develop pastoral farms, is located, and in Campo, a town where the company Cameroon Vert (CAMVERT) wants to deforest thousands of hectares of village land to plant oil palms in the Congo Basin.

Industrial farmland is gradually taking the place of land used for subsistence and rural farming in the country. This is due to both changes in the market as well as other factors such as young people moving to cities, poverty and migration. Poor Cameroonians, who before would have practiced subsistence farming on small plots of land, now find themselves working on large-scale industrial farms — and with little protections.

Michel Bonga Tcherandi, a Tupuri man from northern Cameroon, lost an eye on SOSUCAM's plantations.
Michel Bonga Tcherandi, a Tupuri man from northern Cameroon, lost an eye on SOSUCAM’s plantations. Image by Yannick Kenné.

Migrant workers and a new family cycle

Christine Maïsali, a sugar cane planter in her sixties, was one of the victims of last April’s truck accident. Eight months later, she still shows signs of post-traumatic stress, and she was taken off the seasonal workforce after eight years at SOSUCAM. She is now confined to her home in poor health and has not received compensation to guarantee effective care.

“Since the accident, my health has declined,” she told Mongabay. I regularly have headaches and pain in my chest and neck, and I very often have memory loss issues. In April, May and June, I did not receive any of the compensation due to me. Yet I was on leave until July 12 … I haven’t gotten anything since. My care isn’t covered anymore.”

According to the labor union’s report, only 10% of work accident victims at SOSUCAM would have received full coverage in 2023, and “90% of the work accident victims we met with were not adequately compensated.”

According to their investigation, work accidents in the company generally involve serious cuts from machetes or dabas, an tool similar to an axe; transportation accidents; sprains; pieces of sugar cane flying into their eyes; faints due to working in the heat etc.

One of the many labyrinths in the sugar cane plantations in Nkoteng.
One of the many labyrinths in the sugar cane plantations in Nkoteng. Image by Yannick Kenné.

Prior to her accident, Christine was her family’s main income provider following the retirement of her husband, Farwe Kossombele. He had also worked on sugar cane plantations in the region for twenty years, first for the defunct Cameroon Sugar Company (CAMSUCO), then for SOSUCAM. The former sugar cane cutter is of Tupuri ethnicity and is from the Far North Region, the poorest in the country, where about 74% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Seasonal workers on sugar cane plantations are mainly migrant workers from the northern part of the country. The majority are Tupuri, who have a reputation for being energetic and accustomed to contracted labor, unlike other native local workers, who instead set their sights on administrative positions in the company. Seasonal workers are said to earn between 52,000 and 65,000 CFA francs ($86.74 and $108.42) a month. Their seasonal employment is considered low paid, although it remains slightly above the guaranteed minimum wage of 45,000 CFA francs ($74.97) now paid to agricultural workers.

The crop season lasts barely five months. For the remainder of the year, seasonal workers are forced to practice mixed farming (corn, potatoes, cassava, new cocoyam, plantains…) for subsistence and as a way to scrape together additional income for survival.

Community activist Adonis Febe, who is from an organization called #OnEstEnsemble, which fights social injustice, denounces what he calls the perpetuation of transgenerational enslavement in SOSUCAM’s imported labor, which it inherited from the defunct CAMSUCO.

“In the past, farm workers were recruited by tender in the northern part of the country. The system is such that, since these northerners have already brought their families [to Nkoteng and Mbandjock], it’s a generational cycle of repetition.”

Christine Maïsali, a victim of a work accident on SOSUCAM's plantations, with her husband, Farwe Kossombele.
Christine Maïsali, a victim of a work accident on SOSUCAM’s plantations, with her husband, Farwe Kossombele. Image by Yannick Kenné.

He added: “The father cuts [sugar cane], the child comes to cut, the grandson will come to cut, and the employer pays them extremely low wages. The strategy is to prevent the parent from earning a substantial enough income to pay for their children’s education because the company will need them in its workforce in the future.”

Seasonal workers, who represent about 80% of SOSUCAM’s personnel, work in conditions sources deem precarious and disgraceful. They complain of a lack of medical coverage, very low wages, insufficient personal protective equipment or even, at times, a complete lack thereof.

In some cases, the alleged malfunctions in SOSUCAM’s human resources management have to do with violations of the laws governing work in Cameroon, say sources. These violations are likely to increase the risk of work accidents while the government has nevertheless prioritized risk prevention in the workplace.

According to Dr. Bruno Eyoum Doualla, Director of Occupational Health and Safety at the Cameroonian ministry overseeing labor and healthcare, the government plans to step up compliance checks around applied health and safety measures in the workplace in accordance with the law. This will involve encouraging the creation of occupational health services as well as training health and safety committees to better handle work accidents.

However, it is important to note that the laws governing the workplace in Cameroon date back to a somewhat distant time, and they haven’t necessarily adapted to changes over time. The official says he is aware of the nullity of certain laws and that the government is also considering reforming the legal framework in the work and healthcare subsector.

“A preliminary draft text listing particularly unsanitary or dangerous jobs and professions is being finalized, and it will probably be submitted to the national committee overseeing occupational health and safety for review and validation,” explained the head of the Ministry of Labor. “This list, which covers both health and safety at work, formally identifies inherent risks in the agro-industrial sector.”

The implementation and enforcement of these new standards and laws remains to be seen. In the mining sector, government regulations often lack enforcement.

A stream polluted by wastewater from the SOSUCAM plant in Nkoteng.
A stream polluted by wastewater from the SOSUCAM plant in Nkoteng. Image by Yannick Kenné.

Underlying environmental damage

In Nkoteng and Mbandjock, SOSUCAM often comes under fire from environmental and community organizations for the social, societal and environmental impacts it has on the local populations and its violations in implementing its Corporate Social Responsibility policy. These allegations also appear in a complaint filed by village and community-based organizations in 2021 with the National Point of Contact (NCP) at the French treasury.

On the environmental front, the organization #OnEstEnsemble accuses SOSUCAM of destroying village plantations through aerial pesticide spraying, which spreads onto family farms; polluting the soil; destroying termite mounds and edible caterpillars; polluting drinking water sources through spraying and polluting rivers from discharging plant wastewater.

The company’s pollution is more or less confirmed by an official at Nkoteng Town Hall, who spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity: “At the entrance of the town, there is a stream that gives off a foul smell; at the Essomboutou sand quarry, bagasse [dried sugar cane pulp] discarded from the SOSUCAM plant ends up in the Sanaga river, and blasters complain about developing skin infections.”

The town hall plans to confront the company this year to find out what it discharges in nature. It could also require the company to bioremediate the polluted site, which is an extremely costly operation. “We have a duty to protect our ecosystems,” he added.

A spring in the village of Mendjui, which shrank due to pollution from erosion.
A spring in the village of Mendjui, which shrank due to pollution from erosion. Image by Yannick Kenné.

Concerning land management, according to a law passed by parliament in 2019, town halls in Cameroon are the entities responsible for environmental protection. In that respect, Nkoteng Town Hall could hold SOSUCAM accountable for environmental standard violations on first offense and request action from the Cameroonian ministry overseeing the environment in the event of a repeat offense.

The environmentalist Stella Tchoukep, Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, says the impacts of this agriculture model and the companies practicing it lead a loss of biodiversity among plants and animals in areas used for their operations. The impacts include soil, air and water pollution, with little to no implementation or adaptation of potential pollution-reducing measures; climate change and increased community vulnerability and an increase in human-wildlife conflicts.

“Ultimately, local communities and Indigenous peoples are losing their traditional land and resources, they’re not receiving benefits, and they’re heavily affected by the consequences of their immediate environment being destroyed,” the environmental advocate said. “This isn’t development. Development puts people at the beginning and end of any wealth creation initiative.”

Contacted by email as part of our investigation, SOSUCAM did not respond to our requests for an interview. However, following the publication of the article, it was contacted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, to answer allegations involving its actions.

SOSUCAM is particularly committed to “respecting the strictest principles of corporate social responsibility”, says Jean-Pierre Champeaux, the Director General of SOSUCAM in his letter to the centre. For the past 10 years, the company has implemented a policy that goes beyond its obligations in this area, strives to identify actions for environmentally and community-friendly agriculture and implements a policy on occupational health and safety, explains the Director General. In November 2023, the minimum pay was also raised.

However, SOSUCAM does not refute the facts raised in the article, and moreover acknowledges the existence of the cases of accidents resulting from its activities in the locality of Nkoteng, in particular the one that led to the death of Mr Mballa Olomo and the bus accident in April 2023.

According to the company, in both cases, the injured were immediately treated by the company’s medical team and local hospitals.

“Sosucam has ensured that the victims of the mentioned accidents received free treatment, medicines, meals and other services, not to mention the financial and moral support of several company executives. It is important for us to point out here that Sosucam declares all of its employees and pays the social contributions due to the National Social Welfare Fund. The latter ensures the payment of compensation to victims of work accidents in Cameroon.”

These statements corroborate the testimonies gathered by local sources, without refuting the findings gathered in the workers’ union report.



Banner image: Christine Maïsali, a victim of a work accident on SOSUCAM’s plantations, with her husband, Farwe Kossombele. Image by Yannick Kenné.

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Update (12 March, 2024): This article was updated with comments by SOSUCAM. See their full statement here.

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