<<previous  |  index  |  next>>


Child labor is endemic in sugarcane cultivation in El Salvador.  As this report documents, up to one-third of the workers on many sugarcane plantations are children under the age of eighteen.  Many children told us that they began to work between the ages of eight and thirteen.  These are not isolated cases—the International Labour Organization estimates that at least 5,000 and as many as 30,000 children under the age of eighteen work in some capacity on El Salvador’s sugar plantations.

Harvesting cane is dangerous work.  It 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 we spoke with told us that he or she had suffered gashes on the hands or legs while cutting cane.  These risks led one former labor inspector to tell Human Rights Watch, “It’s indisputable—sugarcane is the most dangerous” of all forms of agricultural work.319

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.

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 San Salvador estimated that about 20 percent of her class did not attend school during the harvest.  Other children drop out of school altogether.  Those who attend afternoon sessions after putting in a full day’s work in the cane fields often have difficulties keeping up in class.

The sugar refined by El Salvador’s mills and purchased or used by other businesses is in part the product of child labor, a fact that the mills and other businesses know or should know.  In particular, Human Rights Watch found that three mills, La Cabaña, Central Izalco, and San Francisco, had much closer ties to their supplier plantations than was evident at first.  In the case of La Cabaña, plantation foremen and prospective workers, children among them, customarily gather in front of the mill to arrange employment.  The San Francisco mill routinely transports cane workers, again including children, to and from its supplier plantations.  Likewise, Central Izalco directly administers some plantations and provides technical assistance to all plantations it does not administer directly.

El Salvador is one of five countries in Latin America that participates in an ILO Time-Bound Programme, an initiative to address the worst forms of child labor.  This program cannot succeed unless government officials have an awareness of the worst forms of child labor and support efforts to eliminate them.  But in interviews with Human Rights Watch, some government officials demonstrated a lack of understanding of the international prohibition on harmful or hazardous child labor.  More commonly, labor ministry officials uncritically accepted the view that most children who cut cane are only their parents’ “helpers,” erroneously concluding that such work was not subject to official scrutiny.

There are no easy answers to child labor.  In particular, simply firing children who are found to be working in hazardous occupations is not an effective strategy.  Efforts to achieve compliance with labor laws should be complemented by programs and services that give children realistic alternatives to hazardous labor.  In this regard, the commentary to the U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights calls upon business enterprises using child labor to “create and implement a plan to eliminate child labour.”  The commentary continues:

Such a plan shall assess what will happen to children when they are no longer employed in the business and include measures such as withdrawing children from the workplace in tandem with the provision of suitable opportunities for schooling, vocational training and other social protection for the children and their families, for example by employing the parents or older siblings or engaging in other measures consistent with ILO Recommendations Nos. 146 and 190.320

Such recommendations reflect the reality that children who work in the sugarcane harvest and in other hazardous occupations are in a particularly vulnerable position.  Lacking other options, they and their families are dependant on the income they receive from hazardous labor, using this income to pay for their school fees and for basic necessities such as food, clothing, and medication.

Combatting hazardous child labor in sugarcane cultivation will require the participation of the government, international agencies and donor governments, and the businesses that indirectly benefit from hazardous work by children.

First, the Ministry of Labor’s new Unit for the Eradication of Child Labor should work with other government bodies, particularly the Ministry of Education and the Salvadoran Institute for Children and Adolescents, to develop comprehensive initiatives to address child labor in sugarcane cultivation.  Following the commentary to the U.N. Norms, these initiatives should not focus solely on enforcement measures; in addition to guaranteeing effective implementation of child labor laws, these initiatives should expand the opportunities available to children and their families.

Second, the Ministry of Education should continue efforts already underway to ensure that all children enjoy their right to a free basic education.  The ministry’s program to eliminate school fees and “voluntary” monthly assessments for primary education is a welcome step in this regard.  It should be complemented with legal efforts to sanction schools that continue to levy such fees illegally or that turn away students who cannot afford uniforms.  In addition, the Ministry of Education should work with UNICEF, IPEC, and donor governments to identify ways to prevent indirect costs of schooling, particularly school supplies and transport, from becoming a barrier to the enjoyment of the right to education.

Finally, El Salvador’s sugar mills and the businesses that purchase sugar should fulfill their responsibility to take steps to ensure that human rights are respected in their supply chains.  The mills should ensure that their supplier plantations respect children’s rights, including their right to be free from economic exploitation and hazardous labor.  Businesses that purchase sugar for resale or use in their products should incorporate the U.N. Norms in their contractual relationships with suppliers, and they should require their suppliers to do the same throughout the supply chain.

Businesses should also adopt effective monitoring systems to verify that labor conditions on sugarcane plantations in their supply chains comply with international standards.  In cases where plantations fall short of these standards, businesses should provide the economic and technical assistance necessary to bring plantations into compliance.  In particular, businesses should support programs and services that offer children and their families alternatives to child labor.

[319] Human Rights Watch interview with a former labor inspector who asked to remain anonymous, San Salvador, February 18, 2003.

[320] Commentary on the U.N. Norms, para. 6, cmt. d.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>June 2004