Man carrying basket on shoulder

Verité’s exploratory research into the labor conditions in Guatemala’s sugar industry has revealed a high degree of vulnerability to labor trafficking in this sector. This research found evidence of recruitment abuses, child labor, restrictions on workers’ right to freedom of association, gender-based discrimination, wage and hour violations, threats to workers’ health and safety, inhumane living conditions, and negative impacts on communities surrounding sugar plantations.  

Major trafficking-related risks identified by Verité included forced overtime, due in large part to quotas and a productivity-based payment system; restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, including through the retention of identity documents; indebtedness to labor brokers and company stores; and instances of induced addiction to drugs, including opioids. Most of the workers interviewed for this study been hired through labor brokers. Verité found that workers hired through brokers were often charged recruitment fees and wage deductions, heightening their vulnerability to debt bondage. In most cases, workers were not provided with written contracts or other documents detailing the terms of their employment, making them vulnerable to changes in their conditions of work and in some cases deceived even about the sector in which they would be working.  

Sugarcane production, by its nature, puts workers at risk, often requiring physically demanding labor with machetes and long hours of exposure to high temperatures, agrochemicals, and smoke from burning cane fields with little rest or access to drinking water. These conditions leave sugarcane workers vulnerable to potentially fatal chronic kidney disease. Two-thirds of workers interviewed reported that they, or someone close to them, suffered from chronic kidney disease and they often lacked access to healthcare that could diagnose or treat this disease. 

Many workers interviewed reported seeing children under the age of 14 working on the plantations. “When children use machetes or apply pesticides, they’re being exposed to possibly harmful working conditions,” said Shawn MacDonald, CEO of Verité. “They’re also missing out on getting an education. Hazardous work and jobs that interfere with children’s education are considered to be among the worst forms of child labor.” 

Although this exploratory study is not a sector or country wide analysis of risk, the troubling findings are a clear indication that more research is needed. Verité recommends that all stakeholders, including governments, foundations, international organizations, and brands, seek to support more in-depth research to measure the prevalence of labor abuses and labor trafficking in the Guatemalan sugar sector. Sugar production worldwide is characterized by difficult, dangerous work processes often carried out by vulnerable or marginalized populations, so the labor vulnerabilities uncovered by this study are not isolated to Guatemala. 

View the summary report here.

For more information, please contact Shawn MacDonald.