by Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON – Coca-Cola and other large businesses are indirectly benefiting from the use of child labor in sugarcane fields in El Salvador, according to a new report released here Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) which is calling on the company to take more responsibility to ensure that such abuses are halted.
From 5,000 to 30,000 Salvadoran children, some as young as eight years old, are working in El Salvador’s sugarcane plantations where injuries, particularly severe cuts, are common, according to the report, ‘Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Labor in El Salvador’s Sugarcane Cultivation.’
Under Salvadoran law, 18 is the minimum age for dangerous work and 14 for most other kinds. But the relevant provisions generally go unenforced in part because the children are hired as “helpers,” rather than employees that would entitle them to certain protections.
Not only is the law circumvented in this way, but children who are injured in the fields often must pay for their own medical treatment despite another provision in the labor code that makes employers responsible for medical expenses for injuries incurred on the job.
“Child labor is rampant on El Salvador’s sugarcane plantations,” said Michael Bochenek of HRW’s Children’s Rights division. “Companies that buy or use Salvadoran sugar should realize that fact and take responsibility for doing something about it.”
The 139-page report, which was based on interviews with 32 children and youths between the ages of 12 and 22, as well as with parents, teachers, activists, academics, lawyers, government officials, and representatives of the Salvadoran Sugar Association, during a trip to El Salvador last year, is the eleventh in a series on child labor issues and the fourth that concerns child labor in El Salvador.
Cutting sugar cane is back-breaking and hazardous work for a variety of reasons. The most common tools are machetes and similar sharp devices, and both the monotony of the work and the fact that it is usually conducted under direct sunlight make for frequent accidents, even among experienced workers.
In addition, because cane is often burned before it is cut to clear away the leaves, workers risk smoke inhalation and sometimes suffer burns of their feet.
As one former labor inspector told HRW, “Sugarcane has the most risks. It’s indisputable – sugarcane is the most dangerous (agricultural work).”
Although not as hazardous, planting sugar cane, which is often performed by girls, is also difficult and exhausting as planters must keep up with tractors that make rows for the cane, also in the hot sun.
In addition, children who work on sugarcane plantations, particularly during the harvest, are often required to miss the first several months of school each year, while older children often drop out of school entirely.
Sugar production has grown in importance in El Salvador since the 1950s and by 1971 exceeded the production of basic grains. By the 1990s, sugar, which was produced mainly by state-owned plantations, had become El Salvador’s second-largest export crop after coffee. Beginning in 1995, most of the plantations were privatized.
Coca-Cola does not own any of these plantations nor does it buy the cane directly from them. Instead, it buys the sugar milled from the cane from El Salvador’s largest sugar mill, Central Izalco.
Coca-Cola’s own guiding principles provide that its direct suppliers “will not use child labor as defined by local law,” but, according to correspondence exchanged between HRW and the company, Coca-Cola has applied this requirement only to Izalco, even though HRW’s research found that Izalco purchased sugar cane from at least four plantations that use child labor in violation of the law.
“(That) means that Coca-Cola’s supplier mill can comply with Coca-Cola’s guiding principles even though it is aware that the sugar it refines is harvested in part by child labor,” HRW concluded.
“If Coca-Cola is serious about avoiding complicity in the use of hazardous child labor,” said Bochenek, “the company should recognize its responsibility to ensure that respect for human rights extend beyond its direct suppliers.”
To do so, Coca-Cola and other businesses that buy Salvadoran sugar from mills should also require their suppliers to incorporate international standards on child labor in their contracts with the plantations and adopt effective monitoring systems to verify that compliance, according to HRW.
Its report marks the latest in a growing number of efforts by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to press multinational corporations to take more responsibility for labor conditions under which their products, or components of their products, are produced.
Under pressure from NGOs, for example, major chocolate manufacturers agreed last year to take part in a program to monitor West African cocoa plantations to ensure their compliance with minimum international child labor standards.
Initially, the chocolate manufacturers insisted that they bore no responsibility for abusive practices because they bought their beans from commodity brokers rather than from the farmers themselves, but they changed their position as NGOs, especially in the U.S. and Britain, increased pressure.