Thursday, June 10, 2004

HRW report out on child labor in El Salvador

A lot of editors screwed up their coverage today of the new HRW report on child labor on Salvadoran sugar plantations, where up to a third of the workers are children. The problem is that the AP titled their story "Group urges boycott of Salvadoran sugar," when in fact there's no such proposed action, either in the AP story or in the recommendations of the HRW report itself! In fact, the report recommends:

Where their supplier plantations fall short of international standards and national legislation, mills should provide the economic and technical assistance necessary to bring plantations into compliance. Sugar mills should not sever contractual ties with supplier plantations before taking steps to help plantations achieve compliance with international norms. Mills should never take actions that would deprive child laborers of their livelihoods without ensuring that children and their families are receiving programs and services designed to provide them with alternatives to hazardous labor.
Check here to see Google's compilation of stories run across the country, and which editors caught the gross mistitling of the story by AP.

The Miami Herald was one that carried this misleading headline, while the Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan writes a feature piece datelined from El Salvador with a more measured headline, "El Salvador Scarred by Child Labor." He notes that

More than 17 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in the region [Latin America], according to a 2002 report by the International Labor Organization.... Child labor perpetuates poverty by drawing the younger generation into the same low-wage manual jobs as their parents, often at the expense of education, according to poverty experts.... While children also tend crops such as coffee, onions and tomatoes, sugar cane work is considered far more dangerous and rigorous.
This report follows several others in the past couple of years, the first on El Salvador by HRW since I stopped working for them in 1993. The renewed attention to El Salvador, on abuse of domestic workers and on workers' rights, is most certainly due to a desire to influence the US policy debate around CAFTA. Many businesses these days have taken to putting an "El Salvador Works" sticker on their products, as part of the first international promotional campaign in the nation's history, which was launched in 2002 with goal of doubling investment in the country by 2004 (it hasn't worked). So you can imagine the government and private sector won't be pleased with this new negative publicity.

None of these HRW reports have received much attention in the Salvadoran mainstream (read: conservative) media, but I'll check back in if this one does make a splash. The largely pro-government media are obviously loathe to let Salvadorans know what the rest of the world sees through these reports, as if censoring this news will make it go away.

The report also takes aim most specifically at Coca-Cola, and the AP story notes evidence that the HRW investigation may have already had an impact: "Coca-Cola said the Human Rights Watch investigation had prompted the Salvadoran sugar industry association to demand 'zero tolerance of child labor' at cooperatives and to increase monitoring both in the fields and in mills, while working to increase educational opportunities for children."

Here's a bit of the HRW press release on this new report:

(New York, June 10, 2004)—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.

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