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Human rights alert: Coca-Cola suppliers buy materials from El Salvador companies that practice child labor

Monday, February 27, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: coca-cola, child labor, human rights

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In terms of human rights and ecology, the Coca-Cola Company seemingly keeps digging itself into a PR hole. The company just can't seem to anger activists enough. It's been accused of privatizing and monopolizing Africa's natural water supply, sucking up India's vital groundwater sources (thereby harming the country's agricultural industry and food supply and polluting its remaining water and soil) and even indirectly condoning Salvadoran child labor that violates local and international laws.

In June 2004, Human Rights Watch published a 143-page report entitled Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador's Sugarcane Cultivation, revealing Coca-Cola's use of sugarcane harvested by children as young as eight years old. Though national and international child labor authorities -- including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Protocol of San Salvador, the Minimum Age Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention -- prohibit minors under the age of 18 from doing hazardous or harmful work, plantation owners circumvent these laws by classifying young children and teenagers who work with parents or older siblings as "helpers" rather than the employees they actually are.

These young "helpers" work harder than some adults work in the United States. Though some girls cut sugarcane, they usually work planting "green cane," which is sugarcane that has not been burned to remove the leaves and spines on the stalk. Unfortunately, these leaves and spines often irritate planters' skin, resulting in huge blisters and scars on their hands. Some child workers have the job of carrying tanks of herbicides on their backs and spraying the cane with a handheld nozzle, exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals in the process. However, the majority of child laborers work as harvesters -- cutting burned sugarcane with machetes and other sharp tools. As you might imagine, many children cut themselves in the process. In fact, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) writes, "Researchers saw scars and cuts on nearly every one of the children we interviewed, including some that were still bandaged." Along with these cuts and gashes, harvesters also experience respiratory problems from inhaling the smoky air that lingers in the fields, even though sugarcane is generally burned the day before harvesting to give it a chance to cool off.

Despite these health hazards, medical care is often not readily available on the plantations. At one plantation visited by HRW researchers, a doctor doesn't arrive until 2 p.m., which is much too late for workers seriously injured in the morning. These workers must instead go to the hospital for treatment, and plantation owners generally do not reimburse workers for hospital costs, even though El Salvador's labor code states that employers are responsible for on-the-job injuries. The expense of medical treatment -- though it only ranges from about $1.14 for stitches to $11.43 for "something serious" -- is often too much for these children's families to afford, so many injured child workers go without medical care. Of course, this can lead to extensive blood loss and infection, but these poor families have little choice in the matter.

Though sugarcane plantation owners break these national and international labor codes, the state of El Salvador's economy allows these injustices to continue because many poverty-stricken families have no alternative but to succumb to these horrific child labor practices. As HRW explains, "As with other forms of hazardous labor, children turn to sugarcane cultivation because of the economic pressures their families face. Last modified in 1998, the minimum monthly wage for agricultural work is $74.06. A rural family cannot meet its basic needs on a single wage earner's salary. According to the El Salvador-based National Foundation for Development, the minimum monthly wage would have to be raised by 30 percent to cover a rural family's basic food needs alone." In other words, many poverty-stricken parents allow their children to participate in such high-risk work because it is either that or starve.

Worst of all, Coca-Cola, a major international corporation with the power to make a difference, is allowing these detrimental child labor practices to continue. Its Guiding Principles for Suppliers to The Coca-Cola Company reads, "Supplier will not use child labor as defined by local law," yet these principles do not extend one more step of the supply chain to apply to their suppliers' supplier of materials. Coca-Cola buys refined sugar for its bottled products sold in El Salvador and its canned products sold throughout Central America directly from Compañía Azucarera Salvadoreña, S.A. de C.V's Central Izalco mill, a company that does not violate child labor practices. However, according to Human Rights Watch, "at least four of Central Izalco's supplier plantations routinely use child labor." When HRW gave this information to Coca-Cola, the company did not deny its validity, instead leaning on the detail that its direct supplier does not use child labor. "We reconfirm that the information from HRW visits in El Salvador as well as our own review, show that no child labor is used either in the mill, or in the refinery plant of the entity CASSA [Compañía Azucarera Salvadoreña], which is an authorized supplier and subject to TCCC's supplier guiding principles program," Coca-Cola responded to HRW.

Though this response suggests Coca-Cola does not violate its own guidelines regarding child labor, it also makes one wonder about the sincerity of the company's concern over child labor practices. As Michael Bochenek, counsel to HRW's Children's Rights Division, told Jim Lobe of CorpWatch in 2004, "Coke is saying that it has no responsibility to look beyond their 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 extends down the supply chain."

If the Coca-Cola Company were to recognize this responsibility, it could limit, and possibly even put an end to, child labor on Salvadoran sugarcane plantations. According to a representative from Central Izalco, the mill is Coca-Cola's sole Salvadoran sugar supplier. This means that if the Cola-Cola Company were to withdraw its business until Central Izalco switched to buying sugarcane only from plantations not employing child labor, it would be economically feasible -- if not necessary -- for Central Izalco to comply with these stricter guidelines. This isn't a far stretch, as 35 percent of the mill's suppliers are already under the mill's direct administration. Consequently, since Central Izalco is the largest mill in El Salvador, sugarcane plantation owners would then have no choice but to follow the mill's anti-child labor guidelines, or else risk losing a large portion of their business. If this were to happen, Salvadoran children could regularly attend school instead of missing entire days or the first several weeks or months of school during harvest time, and they could focus on homework instead of attending classes after putting in a full day's work from 5 a.m. on.

This switch from child labor to child education could finally change El Salvador's economy for the better. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs, "Schooling almost always leads to better outcomes, both socially and economically, than working for children." Due to the very nature of the supply-and-demand chain, the Coca-Cola Company can make this groundbreaking change happen, if its willing to put its foot down and demand it.

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