Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association

The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association was established in 1895 as an organization of various Hawaiian sugar plantations to promote the sugar industry in the Islands. The HSPA not only conducted scientific research in areas of improved seed, fertilization, and irrigation practices but also centralized management information and decision making among the various plantations as it became a repository for knowledge of the sugar industry in Hawai'i. Many of its members were influenced by notions of plantation paternalism and developed sophisticated labor regulations to control workers, many of whom were Japanese. As an organization representing one of the largest industries in Hawai'i prior to World War II, the HSPA and its members thus wielded great economic and political influence and became involved in various issues affecting the Japanese in the Islands.

Labor Controls on the Plantations

The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association originated from the 1882 Planters' Labor and Supply Company and soon began to engage in various methods to control labor and regulate wages. After 1900, planters increasingly began to pay their workers on the basis of short and long-term contracts. Under a short-term contract, workers were employed at piecework rates. The purpose of the long term contract was to control the workers and deter labor organization. In addition to the long-term contract, planters created a complex bonus system to encourage labor efficiency and address the ever-present problem of labor shortages. To maximize the number of days laborers worked, planters created a bonus program to reduce the number of days workers wasted in "laying off," thereby eliminating the need to import more laborers. In 1901, HSPA Board of Trustees passed a resolution that fixed the maximum rate of wages for all laborers specifying rates for each island, region, and plantation.

Many members also engaged in plantation paternalism which although sometimes springing from a sincere concern for their workers, played an important role in plantation production and profit making. Managers took an "intelligent interest" in their laborers to increase productivity and thus regulated housing, working and living conditions, and even their eating habits. To encourage the strict obedience of their workers, planters developed an intricate system of rules and regulations and promoted competition between different groups of laborers such as the Japanese and Filipinos as they realized that a strong sense of ethnicity and nationalistic consciousness could be used to control laborers such as in the 1909 and 1920 sugar strikes. Thus, planters worked with representatives of the home governments of the workers who spoke their language to appeal to their national pride and persuade them to work obediently.

Planters also used coercion to ensure workers' compliance, and many planters created a detailed system of fines for virtually every kind of misconduct. Police power in Hawai'i also supported plantation discipline and authority, and laborers were arrested for fleeing from plantations or breaking their labor contracts. Some planters even had contract laborers photographed in order to more easily identify deserters particularly as Japanese contract laborers completed their service and became free laborers. To address this problem, planters issued laborers honorable discharge papers or certificates that stated they had fulfilled the term of their contract and were "free laborers." Plantation managers agreed they would not hire workers unless they were able to produce these papers. As a more direct method of discipline, planters sometimes resorted to physical violence, and workers were maltreated, beaten, and even whipped. Collectively, these policies were designed to extract as much labor as possible from workers and to weaken the power of laborers to organize and strike.

Political Influence of HSPA and World War II

Throughout its existence, the HSPA was also involved in political affairs at both the local and national level. The HSPA became involved in debates over the importation of labor and the need to secure a subsidy or protection from tariffs in the United States. In 1908, the HSPA established a Bureau of Labor and Statistics to provide data on day-to-day needs for labor especially in light of growing opposition to the importation of Asian labor in America. [1] After the Gentlemen's Agreement Act of 1908 curtailed Japanese immigration, the HSPA recruited Filipino laborers to work for the plantations. Another challenge facing the sugar industry in Hawai'i was that unlike other plantation economies, agricultural workers could find work in other industries including coffee, rice and pineapple. However, according to historian Edward Beechert, the sugar industry's effort to maintain a high profit margin even during significant price fluctuations created these "labor problems" that were "in reality no more than the projection of notions of racial superiority and racial differences used to justify the continued importation of workers." [2] Thus, throughout the early twentieth century the HSPA had to balance their economic needs with growing anti-Japanese sentiment that was also used to undermine the Japanese labor strikes of 1909 and 1920 and demands for more equitable pay for all workers.

Although plantations continued to operate during World War II, the implementation of martial law and the need to mobilize workers in Hawai'i for military purposes ensured the supremacy of the military in economic matters. General Order 38 of the Hawaii Defense Act froze wages, prevented territorial, county and federal workers from leaving their present employment, and suspended all labor contracts between employers and employees. On March 31, 1942, General Order 38 was replaced by General Order 91 that required all employees seeking to leave or to change employment to obtain a release from the employer under penalty of fine or imprisonment. [3] Employees were also required to report a change in employment to authorities. Under martial law, plantation workers were also diverted to work on the docks to fill critical labor shortages. Although early labor movements were suspended with the outbreak of war, in the spring of 1945, the legislature passed the Hawaii Employment Relations Act, popularly known as the "Little Wagner Act," that extended collective bargaining rights to agricultural laborers. Under its provisions, representatives of the sugar industry and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) signed the first agricultural labor contract ever negotiated in Hawai'i by free collective bargaining. It gave a seven-cents-an-hour increase in pay to 20,000 sugar workers who included Japanese laborers, provided for collective bargaining, and specified hours and working conditions.

The declining influence of the sugar industry in the post-World War II period coupled with the development of alternative industries such as tourism and decreasing profitability of commercial agriculture resulted in the waning influence of the HSPA. In 1981, the Board of Directors of the HSPA—now known as the Hawai'i Agriculture Research Center (HARC)—approved the establishment of the Plantation Archives that has been housed at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Hamilton Library since 1995 to provide a repository for plantation records accessible to scholars.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Beechert, Edward D. Working in Hawaii: a Labor History . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

Hawaii Agriculture Research Center website.

Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association Plantation Archives at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Library.

Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.


  1. Edward D. Beechert, Working in Hawaii: a Labor History (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 181.
  2. Beechert, Working in Hawaii , 139.
  3. Beechert, Working in Hawaii , 286.

Last updated Jan. 29, 2024, 7:24 p.m..