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Coca-Cola Exploiting Child Laborers in El Salvador Sugar Cane Fields

>From <www.commondreams.org>

Published on Thursday, June 10, 2004 by OneWorld.net

Coke Benefiting From Child Labor in Sugar Cane Fields

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.

© Copyright 2004 OneWorld.net