Facebook Facebook
Child labor and exploitation in the Guatemalan sugar industry

Child labor and exploitation in the Guatemalan sugar industry

redes sidebar
Children under 14 years of age work in a sugarcane plantation owned by Otto Kuhsiek, President of Guatemala’s Agricultural Chamber. The felony, uncovered by Plaza Publica three weeks ago has been confirmed by a number of sugar-cane growers and sugar processors as common practice in this industry. It was described by diplomatic wires revealed by WikiLeaks as “exploitation in the workplace.”
Otto Kuhsiek, president of Camagro: "I do not know the ages of children who were at my plantation, which were, in any case, on vacation from school. You saw that there was a school in front of where they were. And those children are not workers. They are accompanying their parents. They are their assistants".

A chronicle from the plantation

At first sight, Kennedy S. could be mistaken for an ordinary 12 year old, leaving school dirty faced after a day playing with paint, donning a hat, his backpack slung over his shoulder, smiling at everyone he meets. Nothing would draw attention to this boy if not for the machete he leans on, as if it were a cane. The blade is as long as his legs and it gives away his occupation.

However Kennedy is not leaving school. He has worked in the sugarcane harvest since he was 11. His arms, firm and muscular, toned from working the machete are not those of a boy anymore. He is a working child, something that is in violation ofGuatemala’s labor law, the law to protect childhood.

At least half a dozen more stand by, listening to the conversation with curiosity, laughing and playing with their machetes. Their ages range from 10 to thirteen. The children and adults around Kennedy belong to a crew of cane cutters from Finca Flamenco, a plantation not 100 yards away from the urban center of the city of Retalhuleu, located in the middle of a warm and humid plateau extending from the foothills of the Santa Maria and Santiaguito volcanoes to Pacific Ocean, the most fertile land in the country. 

The day before talking to Kennedy we meet at another plantation, Finca San Luis, children under 14 years, also cutting cane.

Child labor in the sugar industry is ubiquitous. A matter-of-fact occurrence inGuatemala, child cane-cutters can be seen from the highway, working the machetes.

The Finca Flamenco, in which Kennedy works, is owned by a businessman named Otto Kuhsiek and sells its product to Ingenio El Pilar, one of the thirteen members of the Sugar Association of Guatemala (ASAZGUA).
Kuhsiek is not just any businessman either: since 2010 he is the President of the Chamber of Agriculture, a powerful association representing  farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs around the country. Carla Caballeros, its Executive Director, explains that the Chamber was born as the "political wing" of the Guatemalan agricultural sector to "ensure respect for private property." The Guatemalan Farmers Association (AGA) was created in the 1950’s  to oppose the land reforms being pushed by the government of Jacobo Arbenz at that time. 
National law provides an exception to its ban on working minors, provided they perform "light work" and have the permission of their parent or guardian as well as the Child Protection Unit of the Ministry of Labor.
That Ministry pledged in 2008 not to award any work permits to children under 14 years and has confirmed  this policy remains in place. 

And even if Kennedy was 14 years old and had been authorized to work by signing a contract, it would be far from “light work”. His job demands that he cuts and loads cane for over 12 hours a day to complete the ton of cut cane he needs to make a living wage.

Guatemalahas the worst child labor figures in the continent. According to the 2006 Survey of Living Conditions, the latest available official data, 528,000 children between the ages of five and 14 work inGuatemala. 

Edgar Rivera, 30, is walking home after a day working with his two children, Elvis and Jordi, thirteen and 12. For him, the worst is not working children. It goes far beyond that. Edgar would like his children to study, but can’t afford it. Even with all of them working, the family does not earn enough to survive with some dignity. 

"We get 20 quetzales per ton of cane. Children make one ton per day between the two and hopefully I get to two, maybe three, if I work extra hard.”

Among the three they earn 60 quetzals, U.S. $ 7.5. The minimum wage set by law, per person per day, for agricultural work is 68 quetzals a day.

Oscar Siguenza, 50, says that he eats barely anything but beans. “I have five children that carry my last name, plus two with another woman”.  “A pound of meat is 20 quetzales, I cut two tons, that’s 2 pounds of meat for seven people. You do the math.”

Juan Jose de la Cruz is not from this area but has spent his entire life in the plantations. "When I started in the harvest I was thirteen. Now I am 51. You tell me how long I’ve worked here, it’s difficult for me." He comes from Santo Domingo Suchitepéquez and says that as an outsider it’s 20 days of non stop work. The contractor brings us and puts the 20 of us in barracks.
Here, migrant workers eat meat once a day. They pay for it as well as for other food they eat. In conditions much like the indentured servant system, the contractor takes a 5 quetzal cut from each ton they cut. Then they pay 15 quetzales for two days of food,  that consists of beans and meat. A worker therefore needs to cut at least 2 tons a day to return home with any money. After 20 days of 14-hour-long cane cutting sessions, they go home with 500 to 600 quetzales in their pocket.

Otto Kuhsiek’s explanation.

Plaza Publica’s reporter entered Kuhsiek’s private property without permission with the purpose of taking artistic photographs of cane workers. At that time, we were unaware of who owned the farm.  In the course of taking those pictures,  child labor was discovered. There, in an informal conversation between the farmer, the reporter who writes this story and international photographer Rodrigo Abd, Kuhsiek agreed to a formal interview at his office in Guatemala city.

Kuhsiek, co-owner of the Plantation, and Carla Caballeros, Director of the Chamber of Agriculture meet Plaza Publica for that interview at the chamber’s offices in Guatemala City’s exclusive zone 10.
The president of the Chamber of Agriculture says he tries to comply with the law: "I do not know the ages of children who were at my plantation, which were, in any case, on vacation from school. You saw that there was a school in front of where they were. And those children are not workers. They are accompanying their parents. Are their assistants (...) I do not support the work of students but there is a social and anthropological context given in a place where job opportunities are scarce."
He also called for "breaking the myth of marathon-like work days and the constant pressure to work beyond their capacity.” “You saw that it was eleven and they were done for the day after four hours of work" At five o'clock, however, people could still be seen working. 

The question of payment for tons cut and not daily wages  is controversial. To earn a minimum wage a cutter has to cut at least three tons per day. Kuhsiek says the average for a cutter is six tons. Cutters say that after two or three is inhumane.
In the Finca San Luis plantation, for example, a few miles away, cutters say they earn Q35 per ton. 

Kuhsiek blames the responsibility for these dire work conditions to outsourcing contractors who bring workers to the plantations.

Cutter, José Antonio de León, says contractors punish those that complain by not giving them any work.  De Leon, 69, wants to retire but can’t, because, according to him,  the paperwork is too complicated. "I worked here with my dad. Now I'm hoping I get older to rest. After 60 years, one can no longer  keep working, because of fatigue. "

Luis Barrios, 28, says that on top of there being no retirement age, there is the problem of no medical or social security assistance.
Kuhsiek says that workers past their retirement age " are probably are collecting their pensions and continue working because they decide to." 

He says there may be workers not enrolled in social security but blames oursourcing contractors.

Caballeros says that even when the President of the Chamber has underage workers, "We can not force individuals and individual firms. In the event that any of our members does not comply with the rule of law, we are respectful (of the law). It is the government that must see that laws are upheld. We have to implement the programs necessary to tell our partners begin to comply with the rule of law. "

Agribusiness as a model for the country

In this context, Guatemala is the fourth largest exporter of sugar and its industry - composed of thirteen mills and pooled in ASAZGUA, is the most buoyant of the country. Not only that. It offers the most competitive price in the region and the sector with the best performance in Latin America and the Caribbean based on data from the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) United Nations.

It is also an industry that continues to grow. According to the Guatemalan Centre for Research and Training for Sugarcane, production has increased by 238 percent in the last 20 years and their performance has increased by 9.9 percent last year. Along with this performance, thanks to rising international sugar prices, the industry collects 14 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings, a figure that has doubled over the past year - according to the industry.
That means going from U.S. $ 378 million in 2008 to U.S. $ 726 million in 2010.The price of the 100 Lb. rose from U.S. $ 11 in January 2008 to U.S. $ 28 in January 2011. Despite this, domestic sugar prices nearly doubled in one year. And of all the exports, only $ 4.5 million is spent annually on Fundazúcar, as academic Paul Franky has reported in a column published Plaza Publica.

The growth and profits of the sugar industry are not distributed to the differing levels of production involved in their achievement. Employment relationships are at the base of the agrarian system and these seem stuck in the past.  ASAZGUA says the 33.000 cutters that are directly related to its thirteen mills receive the minimum wage plus bonuses for productivity, amounting to around  Q3,500 a month. They are also housed in housing complexes, with meals included. Those who are outside the mills, working for the plantations visited, may receive half that salary and none of the benefits.
Sugar exporters are exempt from Value Added Tax and only have to pay income tax, to which they can make deductions. They have to pay social security benefits for six months of the year for the cutters, during harvest time.

ASAZGUA, the umbrella organization of the thirteen mills in the country, are aware of the existence of cases where labor laws on child labor and social security are not met and do not deny it. 

"The case that we have (with the underage cutters) is of sugarcane, not sugar. They are providers and are not part of ASAZGUA ", they say as means to finish the argument.
Maria Silvia Pineda is the director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of the Guatemalan sugar industry. 

"We know there are behaviors that must be systematized and, without justifying them, these are practices that exist not only in Guatemala but in many other parts of the world. It’s not Ok, but they are clearly there." The Guatemalan Sugar Industry is "categorically disassociated" from child labor. Then again, they fail to call child labor what was seen on Kuhsiek's plantation. "ASAZGUA does not qualify as child exploitation the practices described (...) Accusations and implications in this story are not our business. It is not our duty (to report it), but we are strongly committed to take action so that behavior like this does not happen," Pineda concluded.
They will continue to buy cane from the president of the Chamber of Agricultre. ASAZGUA respects bilateral relations with its suppliers’ mills. The policy of the industry for entrepreneurs who supply them will be incentives, not punishment. We try to show them the advantages of doing things right and to promote behavior change comes from knowledge, attitude and practice ". Pineda said that  only five percent of mills buy from outside suppliers, as the case of Kuhsiek.
Despite the differentiation made by Pineda, ASAZGUA and sugarcane growers are not two parallel bodies isolated from each other that do not cross ever. Both are part of the Chamber of Agriculture. And Otto Kuhsiek is your provider and is its president.
Global Compact is an initiative led by the United Nations that promotes corporate social responsibility. It makes no distinction between producers and suppliers for compliance with global standards: "If those who provide supplies to a given industry present persistent questions about their compliance with standards, the industry's commitment to citizenship and the law will be seriously discredited. "
An anthropological problem
The real explanation for the persistence of child labor is much more complex than the existence of school holidays or the boy who helps his father.
Despite the desire expressed on paper and in words, ASAZGUA does not seem proactive when it comes to taking steps toward making change.

For Silvia Pineda, the first thing is to understand its recent history. "In the early 80's we decided it was necessary to change certain hiring practices. Abiding by the law, but also with an anthropological approach. What happened at that time was a conceptual shift that stopped considering child labor as an economic advantage. "
In 1994 the sugar mills began explaining to workers that children would no longer be hired.. "Think of that time, the Peace Accords had not been signed. We provided enough warning and in 2000, we implemented the Zero Child Labor policy." A policy that a decade later has not been fully implemented, and it is still possible to find sugar cane produced by child labor.
According to them, "it was the cutters, when informed that they could not bring their children to work, who threatened to burn the sugar plantations or, even worse, not come to work, arguing that their right to work was threatened."
Kuhsiek offers a similar yet slightly more convoluted explanation.

"Farms are permeable places where fires can easily occur, say, accidentally." The Chamber’s executive director corrects him: "are not accidental but deliberate fires." He continues with the explanation that a child with a match, doing a prank, can set fire to the cane, which can be very dangerous because of its proximity to the city center, a hundred yards from the farm.
He says cane fields are deliberately set on fire because "By sabotaging production burning the cane produces more work because you have to pick up the burnt  cane and therefore forced to hire more people to do this work," says Kuhsiek.
In this corporate vision, that "anthropological problem" makes victims out of the plantation owners. According to this perspective, the workers themselves were - and are - guilty of forcing employers to hire children, even against their expressed will to eradicate child labor.
The opposing views of farmers and cutters
Aside from the rule of law and Guatemala’s anthropological issues, opinions are diametrically opposed depending on who you talk to.
Urbano Ortega, is 38 years old and looks 60. He is foreman of a crew of cutters and recognizes how difficult it is to get any improvements at the workplace, whatever the law says. "Sometimes we all stop  here on the Plantation, we meet and we talk to the boss. We speak politely, and ask for a little more pay. But he does not listen. For three years now we are earning the same. "
The Human Development Report prepared by the UNDP (United Nations Plan for Development) says that in 2011 Guatemala has seen its per capita income not only stagnated but was reduced by $ 567 compared to 2010.
Ortega, like all workers of the harvest knows that there is no sugar mill union that could influence or at least try to negotiate working conditions. They were disbanded. In Guatemala, according to ASAZGUA there are 33.000 cutters and 65.000 sugarcane workers altogether in the sugar industry. And not a single union. The story can be read in different ways.
For Pineda, "trade unions are not banned but they are not needed because trust between workers and employers is such that that nobody wants to risk that trust." In fact, says sugar employers pay is, on average, 64 percent more than the number marked by the minimum wage law. The statistics presented show that 98% of workers are satisfied and 86% go back to the same employer from the previous year.

Therefore, when asked why no journalists were allowed to enter the farms, Pineda responds that "although I do not know in this case, I imagine that the reason  may have been the need to prevent anyone reaching out to incite to the cutters. "
The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) sponsored by United Nations reported on what has happened in the past to those who tried organize sugarcane cutters.
In March 1980, 70,000 workers took all the sugar mills of the country to demand better working conditions and succeeded. To understand the strength of those claims, an example: 50 percent of Ingenio Pantaleon cutters, the most important in the area, were now unionized. Just three years later, in November 1983, three of the five members of the Steering Committee of the Union the same Ingenio were kidnapped. Their bodies were never found. They were accused of having contacts with the guerrillas. In 1984 all workers who had some relationship with a union were fired from Ingenio.
In the three years from the great strike of 1980 to the dissolution of unions in early 1984, 23 members of the sugar union had disappeared in the South Coast of Guatemala. The CEH "acquired the strong presumption that the union leaders and advisors Ingenio Pantaleon were detained and then disappeared by state security agents or private individuals acting with tolerance or connivance (..) This conclusion is reinforced by consideration of the bonds that held the employer sector with (...) security forces and their collaboration with the State policy of dismantling the trade union movement that included the elimination of many of its leaders. "

VI) There are no reliable statistics or trade unions to support the findings of Plaza Publica. However, diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks indicate the same work conditions have been in place for decades. The 08GUATEMALA693 diplomatic cable, dated June 2008, calls sugar cane pay-per-ton cut system as "forced labor and child exploitation." A system in which "companies set rigorous daily quotas that are humanly impossible to meet in legal conditions."
According to the same document, signed by James Derham "Child labor is widespread despite the fact that the sugar companies deny it." The U.S. embassy cable goes further and notes that "the threat of layoffs for those who do not meet their quotas is used as a way to work forced labor" and adds "this results in work days not less than 12 hours long and widespread use of drugs by workers to try to increase their performance".
At Finca Flamenco this was confirmed by cutters. "Thiamine and sin-sueno (a stimulant pill similar to No-Doz)," says Leonel Hernandez, 24 years. "Your body gets used to it and asks for more, but only drugged up you can make four tons."
If during the 80's the mechanism used by the sugar mills to end the demands of the cutters was the selective use of violence in coordination with state security forces in the first decade of XXI century exploitative labor relations are possible by two mechanisms.
First, buy the cane from suppliers that do not meet standards, and then they rely on "the existence of a widespread system of corruption that allows them to violate existing laws." The source of the statement is also the Embassy in 09GUATEMALA1102 cable, dated October 2009, it accuses the industry of routine violation of labor laws and mocking the Ministry of Labor coupled with a system of insufficient labor inspectors and an often corrupt judicial system that favors employers. Lastly it explains that "workers do not try to exercise their rights because they know they will lose their employment prospects if they do."

The narrow exit

The output of this circle of illegality and backwardness does not seem easy. The elementary schooling the child workers will get will hardly allow them to access better jobs. Guatemala is the country with the worst rates in America. While the average years of schooling on the continent is 7.78 years, Guatemala is 4.14 according to the Human Development Index of UNDP. Like the figures of child labor or the evolution of income per capita, the educational indicators of the country also offer the worst results in the Americas.
Regarding the possibility of changing jobs, Pedro Luis O., 15, responds realistically, without much hope and with no little shame that "employers ask for reading and writing."  Pedro unwittingly shows how statistics support his story.
Kennedy, a child of thirteen says that what he likes about his work is when peels a piece of cane with a machete and sucks it, like one of those candy sold in stores, wrapped in paper. "Here its free, you don’t have to pay for the candy. They say sugar comes from here but I still haven’t seen it. "
With less innocence, his uncle Basilio Ortega, 38, is resigned: "It's nice work, because when there is no work, no money or food," he mutters.
Meanwhile, moved by the story "and other personal business," Kuhsiek stated in the interview that he will stop selling cane to the mill and will lease his land to sugar.
ASAZGUA will not punish or stop buying his cane. Nor will it investigate. Supervision, of course, is not their role. It is only a function of the state.