Sweet and Sour

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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