Features International Sugar Journal

Exploitation of child labour in cane industry must stop

Elizabeth Abbot’s “bittersweet history” of sugar is a compelling read1. The section on “slave-sugar complex” is a testimony of crimes against humanity that history witnesses time and time again. For some two centuries (17th to 19th), when “sugar was to the geopolitics…what oil has been to the 20th and 21st2, the sheer brutality rained on slaves by their masters as they exploited them to the hilt should always be a reminder to those work in the industry of the relative progress made, for at least some who work in it. The lot of the indentured Indian and Chinese labourers following abolition of slavery fared little better as they got sucked into a “new system of slavery”. In many sugar industries of the world today, particularly in SE Asia and Central America, where cane production continues to be labour-intensive, throes of the past, where “the egregious exploitation of sugar labourers” is an indicative reflection of “management techniques developed in slave times – including the use of disempowered migrant, bonded and child labour – to keep costs down and profits up.”3

What is particularly disquieting, that well into the 21st century, is to see children working in cane fields. This is clearly a modern phenomena. In a seminal paper by Schwarzbach and Richardson4, the authors cite a list of countries by the US Department of Labour “in which it believes sugarcane is produced using child labour. In 2013, this list included Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Thailand, and Uganda. Based on publicly available studies commissioned by The Coca-Cola Company, as well a cursory search of reports by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and newspapers, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Fiji, India, Nicaragua, Nepal, and Pakistan can also be added to that list.” 

Schwarzbach and Richardson painstakingly note that the abuse of children in cane production comprises three types:

  • Hazardous work – this includes cane harvesting where the risk of “muscular-skeletal damage” is immense and spraying pesticides and herbicides exposing them to “risk of cancer and neurological damage
  • Harmful adult work – “harm caused to children as a direct result” of their parents having to migrate to work, or children taken with their parents, where in addition to joining them to work in cane fields, also find themselves living in camps where conditions are “inhuman”
  • Exploitative work – where children are “under paid” for the work they do which is similar to adults. 

Many of the 23 countries listed earlier are signatories to the Convention of the Rights of the Child. But indeed how many in fact pay heed to them let alone ensure these are adhered to?

In the sugar world, Brazil has commendably been both proactive and progressive in addressing the needs and rights of children. Through, the Programa de Erradicacao do Trabalho Infantil (PETI) children are helped into mainstream education through two public policy interventions. “The first created the Jornada Ampliada, an after-school programme to complement regular school hours. The second provided a subsidy called a bolsa to poor households whose children attended the after-school programme at least 80% of the time.” This was bolstered in 1995 by the creation of The Programa Empresa Amiga da Criança (PEAC), which translates as the Child Friendly Company Programme. PEAC is funded by the Brazilian Abrinq Foundation that runs a variety of programmes designed to support children’s rights. Further, in 1996, the Brazilian sugarcane industry signed the Pacto dos Bandeirantes for the eradication of child labour in the sector. By 2007, it had awarded seventy-six companies in the sugarcane industry with the Child Friendly Company label.

My first serious job over 30 years ago was lecturing at the College of Education in Sokoto, Nigeria. Twice a year, I visited primary schools in Sokoto State to invigilate my students teaching children. It was a splendid privilege to note that these young, fresh minds were as curious to learn about their world as their counterparts all over the globe, unencumbered as they were by the burden of other pressing distractions. Alas, in more than few corners of the sugar industry some children are denied this basic right as they toil away in cane fields. It is simply unacceptable that this happens. Those who consider that only their children are precious and deny other people’s children their basic rights must be taken to task. The sugar industry, its leaders, the companies that support it can no longer, and must not, sit idly by.


1 Elizabeth Abbott (2010) Sugar: A bittersweet history (Overlook, 453pp)

2 Andrea Stuart (2010) Review of Sugar: A bittersweet history http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/sugar-a-bittersweet-history-by-elizabeth-abbott-1854583.html

3 Ben Richardson (2015) Still slaving over sugar. https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/ben-richardson/still-slaving-over-sugar

4 Natasha Schwarzbach and Ben Richardson (2014) A bitter harvest: Child labour in sugarcane agriculture and the role of certification systems. UC Davis Journal of International Law and Policy, 21 (1): 99-128.