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Businesses purchasing sugar from El Salvador, including The Coca-Cola Company, are using the product of child labor that is both hazardous and widespread, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Harvesting cane requires children to use machetes and other sharp knives to cut sugarcane and strip the leaves off the stalks, work they perform for up to nine hours each day in the hot sun. Nearly every child interviewed by Human Rights Watch for its 139-page report , “Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador’s Sugarcane Cultivation,” said that he or she had suffered machete gashes on the hands or legs while cutting cane. These risks led one former labor inspector to characterize sugarcane as the most dangerous of all forms of agricultural work.

“Child labor is rampant on El Salvador’s sugarcane plantations,” said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Companies that buy or use Salvadoran sugar should realize that fact and take responsibility for doing something about it.”

Up to one-third of the workers on El Salvador’s sugarcane plantations are children under the age of 18, many of whom began to work in the fields between the ages of eight and 13. The International Labor Organization estimates that at least 5,000 and as many as 30,000 children under age 18 work on Salvadoran sugar plantations. El Salvador sets a minimum working age of 18 for dangerous occupations and 14 for most other forms of work.

Medical care is often not available on the plantations, and children must frequently pay for the cost of their medical treatment. They are not reimbursed by their employers despite a provision in the Salvadoran labor code that makes employers responsible for medical expenses resulting from on-the-job injuries.

El Salvador’s sugar mills and the businesses that purchase or use Salvadoran sugar know or should know that the sugar is in part the product of child labor. For example, Coca-Cola Co. uses Salvadoran sugar in its bottled beverages for domestic consumption in El Salvador. The company’s local bottler purchases sugar refined at El Salvador’s largest mill, Central Izalco. At least four of the plantations that supply sugarcane to Central Izalco regularly use child labor, Human Rights Watch found after interviewing workers.

When Human Rights Watch brought this information to the attention of Coca-Cola Co., the soft-drink manufacturer did not contradict these findings. Coca-Cola has a code of conduct for its suppliers, known as the “Guiding Principles for Suppliers to The Coca-Cola Company,” but it is narrowly drawn to cover only direct suppliers, which includes sugar mills but excludes plantations. The guiding principles provide, for example, that the Coca-Cola Co.’s direct suppliers “will not use child labor as defined by local law,” but they do not address the responsibility of direct suppliers to ensure that their own suppliers do not use hazardous child labor.

“If Coca-Cola is serious about avoiding complicity in the use of hazardous child labor, the company should recognize that its responsibility to ensure that respect for human rights extends beyond its direct suppliers,” said Bochenek.

In addition, children who work on sugarcane plantations often miss the first several weeks or months of school. For example, a teacher in a rural community north of the capital San Salvador estimated that about 20 percent of her class did not attend school during the harvest. Other children drop out of school altogether. Some children who want to attend school are driven into hazardous work because it is the only way their families can afford the cost of their education.

El Salvador is one of five countries in Latin America to participate in an International Labor Organization Time-Bound Program, an initiative to address the worst forms of child labor. But officials in the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor told Human Rights Watch that most children who cut cane are simply their parents’ “helpers.”

Human Rights Watch urged El Salvador’s sugar mills, Coca-Cola Co. and other businesses that purchase Salvadoran sugar to incorporate international standards in their contractual relationships with suppliers and require their suppliers to do the same throughout the supply chain. They should also adopt effective monitoring systems to verify that labor conditions on their suppliers’ sugarcane plantations comply with international standards.

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