Sweet and Sour

Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Labor in El Salvador's Sugarcane Cultivation

| July 8, 2004

Child laborers as young as eight years old in El Salvador are forced to work dangerous and grueling jobs in sugarcane fields so Coca-Cola can bottle and sell its sweet soft drink all over Central America. The wealthy corporation denies any connection with child labor in El Salvador, arguing that it doesn't buy cane directly from any of these law-breaking plantations. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that Central Izalco, the refinery from which Coca-Cola's local bottler buys its sugar, purchased sugarcane from at least four such plantations.

According to the HRW's 139-page report, entitled 'Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Labor in El Salvador's Sugarcane Cultivation,' as many as 30,000 Salvadorian children work on sugarcane plantations where injuries are commonplace. Even child laborers as young as eight suffer cuts and gashes, courtesy of knives or machetes. Cutting sugarcane is considered the most dangerous of all agricultural work due to its monotony and the fact that it is usually performed under direct sunlight. Even the most experienced workers suffer frequent accidents, writes Jim Lobe for CorpWatch. Human Rights Watch was hard pressed to find children without multiple scars from cuts received while working in the fields. 'I cut myself on the leg,' a 13-year-old boy told HRW, pointing to scar on his left shin. 'There was a lot of blood. I got stitches at the clinic.' The accident occurred when the boy was only 12, his mother added.

As if the blade doesn't pose enough of a danger, workers may suffer smoke inhalation and burns on their feet since the sugarcane is often burned before it is cut to clear away the leaves. And older children whose parents have come to rely on the added income from their work often drop out of school entirely.

Michael Bochanek, who headed the HRW study, believes it's up to Coca-Cola to take more responsibility. 'Coke is saying that it has no responsibility to look beyond its direct suppliers, and we disagree. If Coca-Cola is serious about avoiding complicity in the use of hazardous child labor, the company should recognize its responsibility to ensure that respect for human rights extend down the supply chain.'
-- Jacob Wheeler

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