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March 2007
Life After Labor: New Struggles for El Salvadoran Children
The Satya Interview with Michael Bochenek


Child worker chops sugar cane in El Salvador. Photo: Getty Images News

One child, 14, has scars crisscrossing his legs from his ankles to his thighs, and more on his small hands. For more than half of his young life, he’s spent long days cutting sugar cane. He has the machete scars to prove it, and so do his four brothers and sisters, age 9 to 19, all of whom work in the sweltering cane fields.—Human Rights Watch

“ Child labor is rampant on El Salvador’s sugar cane plantations,” Michael Bochenek, lead researcher of Human Rights Watch said in the June 2004 release of Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador’s Sugar Cane Cultivation. The report was based on interviews conducted with 32 children and youths between the ages of 12 and 22, as well parents, teachers, activists, lawyers, government officials and representatives of the Salvadoran Sugar Association.

The report charged that the use of child labor on sugar plantations in El Salvador was alarming. Children as young as eight, wielding machetes to cut cane, were forced to work up to nine hours every day in the blistering heat. Slashes on their hands and legs were everyday occurrences. Yet medical care was not available on the plantations, and the cost of treatment was usually left to the families.

Children lucky enough to attend school were required to miss the first few months of the academic year in order to finish the harvest. According to Human Rights Watch, “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 dropped out altogether. Some children who want to attend school were driven into hazardous work because it is the only way their families can afford the cost of their education.”

Because of the negative publicity El Salvador received due to the HRW report, by 2005 sugar plantations had dismissed all their child laborers. A major victory for sure, but getting the children out of the fields is not enough. As Bochenek explains, it simply perpetuates an already existing problem. Children left with nothing might try to sneak back on the fields where at least they were financially contributing to their family. Human Rights Watch is currently asking the Salvadoran government to strengthen existing efforts to move children into educational and vocational training programs, and enforce laws guaranteeing universal access to basic education.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Michael Bochenek about life after work for El Salvadoran children.

Just to contextualize, what role does sugar play in the Salvadoran economy? What businesses purchase sugar from El Salvador?
Sugar is an important export product and is, together with coffee, one of the top two Salvadoran export crops. One business that purchases Salvadoran sugar is the Coca-Cola Company, whose local bottler purchases sugar from El Salvador’s largest mill, Central Izalco. Coca-Cola uses Salvadoran sugar in its bottled beverages for domestic consumption and in canned beverages sold throughout Central America. Coca-Cola is by no means the only multinational corporation purchasing or using Salvadoran sugar. For example, in 2003 Central Izalco sold sugar and molasses to Amerop Sugar Corp., Cargill, Inc., Glencore International AG, Louis Dreyfous Corp., and Marubeni Corp., among other foreign enterprises.

Nearly every child interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador’s Sugar Cane Cultivation, said that they suffered injuries from this work. While children also tend crops such as coffee, onions and tomatoes, sugar cane work is considered far more dangerous and rigorous. What health risks did these children face?
Children and adults use machetes and other sharp knives, known as cumas and corvos, to cut sugar cane and strip the leaves off the stalks. Injuries are common. A 16 year-old in San Miguel told me, “Sometimes when you are cutting, the knife jumps up off the cane when you hit it [and cuts your hand]. If the knife passes all the way through the cane, it can cut your foot.” They perform this work for up to nine hours each day in the hot sun. Medical care is often not available on the plantations, and children frequently had to pay for the cost of their medical treatment.

And, while pesticide and herbicide use is actually far less significant in Salvadoran sugar cultivation than in other agricultural sectors. (For instance, our investigation of Ecuador’s banana industry found that child workers were regularly exposed to pesticides.) Sugar cane itself is a skin irritant. When they plant green cane—cane that has not been burned before cutting to remove the leaves and the spines on the stalk—children and adults suffer skin irritations from contact with the leaves and stalks of the cane. A 15 year-old who planted sugar cane in December 2002 and January 2003 told me, “I had huge blisters and scars on my hands, especially on my palms...”

Compared to 2003, how has child labor on El Salvador’s sugar cane plantations changed?
When we visited El Salvador’s sugar cane plantations in 2003, we found that child labor was widespread. On some of the plantations, over one-third of the workers were children. We heard numerous accounts of children who began work between the ages of eight and 13. By 14, nearly every boy and many of the girls were working with sugar cane in most of the communities we visited.

By 2005, in contrast, we heard of only a few children involved in the cutting and planting of sugar cane. Following the release of our report, the government and the sugar industry began to enforce El Salvador’s child labor laws. Unfortunately, they have not put in place adequate alternatives. When we visited in 2005, they had essentially fired all of the child laborers without ensuring they would be able to attend school or benefit from alternative vocational training.

This is obviously a complicated issue. While children must be protected from the kinds of dangerous work conditions we found, the government and industry response should take into account the realities that induce children to participate in these kinds of hazardous activities in the first place. They should ensure that their response to hazardous child labor is a sustainable one.

What are some of the main issues affecting children now that they are not working?
In theory, they should be taking part in vocational training and attending school. We have concerns that there are not enough programs for all former working children to attend. We are also concerned that Salvadoran schools continue to charge school fees (despite legislation that prohibits them) and impose other costs—mandatory uniforms, for example—that make school attendance prohibitive. Some of the children we interviewed told us they were working to pay for these costs, while others told us these costs pushed them out of school. These questions about the availability of vocational training and the accessibility of schools raise concerns that children are left with no productive alternative to hazardous work.

Do you think they were better off working in the fields?
The real concern is whether they think they were better off working in the fields. Given the lack of alternatives, it is likely many do. Those who do not benefit from these programs will have no incentive to comply with the prohibition on child labor—that is, they may find ways of working in sugar cane even though it’s illegal. At the very minimum, they may be forced to turn to other forms of work that leave them worse off because they may not receive as much income as they would in sugar cane and because they do not have skills necessary for anything other than manual labor.

Do you think child labor is mainly a socio-economic problem? Do parents, despite their poverty, want to send their children to school?
Most of the parents we spoke with were very conscious of the benefits of education. Those whose children were not in school told us most often the reason for non-attendance was inability to afford the cost. The commitment required for poor families to send their children to school is always difficult because they have a harder time absorbing the cost, and the loss of income their children earn as workers is difficult for them to deal with, even though the long-term benefits of education are ultimately significant.

Child labor financially helps the family. Can you discuss this and the effects on the family since the ban?
It’s difficult to speak definitively about the effects on families, but the lost income is significant. The families I spoke with in 2005 were very critical of the ban on child labor because of the direct loss they bear and because they saw no concrete benefits—none of the programs they were promised seemed to amount to much.

What is the next step?
The government and the sugar industry must provide vocational training programs, expanding their reach in the coming year. What they have done to date has not been a bad effort, but they must continue to follow through on the commitment they have made so that families feel they are gaining something from the new approach to child labor. The government must also ensure that schools do not charge fees for attendance.

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