by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Coca-Cola and other companies must do more to ensure that the sugar they buy from El Salvador is not provided by the thousands of children working illegally in the country's sugar cane fields, says a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
From 5,000 to 30,000 children, some as young as eight years old, work in sugar cane plantations in the Central American nation, where injuries, particularly severe cuts, are common, according to the report, 'Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous labor in El Salvador's Sugar Cane 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 thus excluding them from 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 sugar cane 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 in 2003, is the 11th in a series on child labor issues and the fourth that concerns child labor in El Salvador.
It 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 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 United States and Britain, increased pressure.
The International labor Organization (ILO) has named June 12 the World Day Against Child labor.
Coca-Cola does not own any of the plantations in El Salvador 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.
Other companies named in the report include Amerop Sugar Corp; Cargill, Inc, Glencore International AG; Louis Dreyfous Corp; and Marubeni Corp.
Cutting sugar cane is backbreaking 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, "sugar cane has the most risks. It's indisputable -- sugar cane is the most dangerous (agricultural work)."
Although not as hazardous, planting cane, which is often performed by girls, is also difficult and exhausting as workers must keep up with tractors that make rows for the cane, also in the hot sun.
In addition, children who work on sugar cane 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'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, argues HRW.
June 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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