Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Nothing sweet about child exploitation

Sugarcane is known as “the hunger crop” due to the low prices paid to farmers and low earnings among workers. Because they earn so little, those producing the sugarcane we consume – and their children – are often forced to go without adequate food and nutrition. Most of the UK’s sugarcane imports come from places where people living in rural areas are multidimensionally poor. Multidimensional poverty is an acute experience of poverty in which a person is simultaneously severely deprived in three key areas: health, education and living standard (in terms of sanitation, electricity, etc.).

In 2014, Fairtrade International discovered that children were working during school hours on certified farms in Belize, in direct violation of Fairtrade standards. Fairtrade suspended the certification of the entire Belize programme while the local industry worked to address the problem and the programme has since been reinstated. Belize, a Commonwealth country bordered by Mexico and Honduras, has long been a key provider of sugarcane to the UK market – in 2016 it accounted for 14% of UK imports of raw sugarcane. Yet, that same year, while the Belize sugar industry was already making considerable efforts to eliminate child labour within sugarcane, the United States Department of Labor (US DoL) found that the country as a whole had made minimal progress in eradicating the worst forms of child labour, including within sugarcane.

Another report by the US DoL also documented child labour in sugarcane in Guatemala and El Salvador, which together provided 14% of the 2016 UK supply. This means that child labour was documented in countries that supply nearly one-third of UK sugarcane in 2016.

. Additionally, the US DoL found forced labour in Brazil (12% of the UK supply). Previous research suggests that this is a recurring problem in this nation, even among operations that are certified by the rigorous Bonsucro production standard, which uses six principles to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability in the production of sugarcane. In Minas Gerais, Brazil, where workers are paid at least a legal minimum wage, their earnings fall considerably short of the living wage required for a decent standard of living. Agricultural workers earning the lowest entry-level wage of, on average, just 1,079 Brazilian reals per month (£223) (exclusive of benefits or overtime earnings) are R$334 (£69) short of the living wage benchmark. This means they are likely to have to choose between necessities such as food, housing, and healthcare, and they are unlikely to have any money in reserve for emergencies. In other words, they are financially precarious in the best of circumstances.

In 2015, public health researcher Jennifer Crowe published a paper outlining findings from a study conducted with sugarcane harvesters in Costa Rica. They found that harvesters were regularly exposed to heat stress because the recommended temperature limit for safe outdoor manual labour was typically reached by 7:30am during the harvest season – yet the working day lasted until 12pm.
Exposure to heat stress is a critical issue within the sugarcane industry, and agricultural work in general, because it can have devastating health impacts on the body. Crowe’s study found that workers experienced heat and dehydration symptoms at least once a week, ranging from headaches to elevated heart rates. Other research has found links between long-term exposure to heat stress and deadly chronic kidney disease among sugarcane workers.  Research suggests that risk of heat stress is a common problem for sugarcane harvesters. Maximum monthly temperatures during the harvest period regularly exceed the recommended safe limit in the countries that we assessed: Belize, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, and Jamaica.

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