Labor-abuse probe targets ethanol firm

Bill Clinton has a small investment in the Brazil-based company.

.SÃO PAULO, Brazil (AP) – A team from Brazil’s Labor Ministry found “degrading” living conditions for 133 sugarcane workers employed by an ethanol company whose investors include former President Clinton and other high-profile financial players.

At five sites inspected, workers “complained they were suffering from hunger and cold, and all of the locations were overcrowded and with terrible sanitary conditions,” according to a statement issued Friday by Jaqueline Carrijo, who led the inspections last month.

The target of the probe, Brazil Renewable Energy Co., known as Brenco, apologized over the weekend and said it is fixing the problems at its rural operations, which turn sugarcane into ethanol.

Clinton’s connection is via an investment in Brenco by The Yucaipa Cos., a U.S.-based fund in which Clinton was a senior advisor until last year. His investment in Brenco is valued between $15,001 and $50,000, according to a financial dislosure report submitted last year by his wife, presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yucaipa, whose chairman is prominent Democratic billionaire Ron Burkle, holds an overall 2.8 percent stake in the initial $200 million raised by Brenco last year to start up operations in Brazil’s booming ethanol sector.

Bill Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said that the former president’s investment made via Yucaipa was small but that he had been assured Brenco was “committed to the highest ethical standard with regard to the treatment of its workforce and of the environment.”

“The president finds these allegations deeply troubling and expects Brenco to move swiftly to ensure that those responsible are held accountable,” McKenna said, adding that Clinton is “taking steps to ensure that there is an appropriate transition for his business relationships should Senator Clinton become the Democratic nominee.”

The Brazilian labor probe focused mostly on living conditions for the workers, including 17 who were paying rent to live in housing overrun by rats and cockroaches, Carrijo said. In addition, trucks lacked special seatbelts for workers who ride atop the vehicles as they throw sugarcane seedlings to the ground, she said.

Details of the investigation were first reported Saturday in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest.

Brenco said the problems happened while it was mobilizing 3,500 workers to plant sugarcane on 86,500 acres in three central Brazil states.

“These incidents, which are being addressed, are contrary to the policies of Brenco, which will continue to invest in (worker) living facilities because it believes it’s the best way to meet the sugarcane workers’ needs for comfort and well being,” Brenco said in a statement.

Brenco’s investors include Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who was one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems; America Online founder Stephen Case; Hollywood producer and Democratic fundraiser Steven Bing, another close Clinton ally; and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

Brazil is the world’s second-largest producer of ethanol after the United States, but is the No. 1 exporter. Experts say Latin America’s largest nation could become an ethanol superpower because its sugarcane is more efficient for ethanol production than the corn used in the U.S.

UNICA, Brazil’s association of sugar and ethanol producers, has acknowledged that working conditions in Brazil’s cane fields have caused an image problem that could hurt exports.

While cane cutters receive good salaries by Brazilian standards, they spend long hours in the hot sun and suffer a litany of bone and muscle injuries and machete cuts. Their eyes and lungs are punished by ash from working in fields recently burned to facilitate cutting and to kill off rats, snakes and scorpions.

Most of Brazil’s sugarcane-ethanol operations are owned by Brazilian individuals and companies, but foreign investment is increasing rapidly.