Teen Workers May Be Dying to Produce Sugar in Nicaragua

By Deborah Andrews, Contributing Writer

Legal protections for children working in hazardous conditions in Nicaragua are robust on paper, but systematic publicity, implementation and enforcement of the law is missing. Nicaragua has ratified all of the core international covenants in regards to child labor and has passed national laws that clarify in which hazardous environments child labor is prohibited, but the positive impact of these has not become reality.

In 2015, La Isla Foundation produced a report entitled, ‘Cycle of Sickness: A Survey Report on Child Labor in the Nicaraguan Sugarcane Fields of Ingenio San Antonio’ which investigated child labor among Nicaraguan sugarcane workers.

Child sugarcane worker. Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky. Courtesy of Green America.

Child sugarcane worker. Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky. Courtesy of Green America.

Agriculture, particularly the rapidly expanded sugarcane industry, is one of the most hazardous sectors of the economy and child labor within it is widespread.

Nearly four in 10 Nicaraguan children live in poverty.  In rural areas poverty, affects 50% of children. The Teenage pregnancy rate is 23.3%. Only 49% of Primary School students successfully completed 6th Grade and over 72% of the population does not finish Secondary School. Child labor is a major problem in the country and a huge barrier to education, reducing life-time earnings for many individuals. Nicaragua is the only Latin American Country where school is compulsory only up to age 12, as opposed to age 15 in all others.

Although illegal for a minor to be employed in the sugarcane industry, child workers obtain employment through third party contractors with borrowed ID numbers. This precarious power relationship leaves children extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Workers reported various ways their salary could be reduced without cause or explanation.  Most workers were not told how much they would be paid before they started work and had no paperwork documenting their salary – increasing the likelihood of wage manipulation. Many workers were employed through third party contractors and with borrowed ID numbers (which they paid up to 2 days salary to the owner for) and some reported having their money stolen, with the threat of dismissal if they reported the theft.

Interviewing current and former sugarcane workers (ages 12-17 years) La Isla Foundation discovered several negative impacts on children working long-term in sugarcane: Their personal development, their health, their mental health and their access to education is restricted. Children often become introverted and are sadly deprived of the medical and psychological care they ultimately require. Feelings of inadequacy and frustration rob children of hope and the pressure of knowing their family depends on them to earn causes huge suffering.

The hazardous working conditions in sugarcane include an excessive workload (8-15 hours per day), excessive heat (often averaging 100 degrees Fahrenheit), little or no protection equipment, no training and completely inadequate access to water and rest. Interviewees reported symptoms of dizziness from dehydration, extreme fatigue, heat stress, fever and problems with urination. Nicaragua has the highest mortality rate from Kidney Disease within the Americas. In the most severely impacted agricultural areas of Western Nicaragua the incidence of Kidney Disease is an estimated five times that of the national average.

Chronic Kidney Disease of nontraditional causes (know as CKDnT) is the progressive, degenerative, fatal form of Kidney Disease that disproportionately affects agricultural workers due to the toxic mix of their hazardous working environment. It has resulted in the death of an estimated 20,000 workers in Nicaragua. The premature deaths of these primary provider adults often results in children being forced to replace them in sugarcane to make up for the lost family income, further exacerbating the problem of child labor in this industry.

For clients served by La Isla, CKDnT is presenting at an extremely young age. Workers as young as 17 years old have been positively diagnosed.  Interviewees repeatedly reported no access to onsite medical facilities or medical benefits of any kind.  It is strongly suspected that creatinine levels (the indicator of healthy kidney function) are not being checked among children and due to limited treatment options being available, a diagnoses of CKDnT typically leads to a slow and painful death. The attitude of their employers and contracting corporations is horrifying. Multiple testimonies were collected stating that when workers are diagnosed with CKDnT they were fired and promptly “disowned”.  Inadequate access to even government run medical care frequently results in rapid acceleration of the disease and death.

Infographic courtesy La Isla Foundation.

Infographic courtesy La Isla Foundation.
















It is ironic that those interviewed by researchers were working for Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), a Sugar Mill, owned and operated by Nicaragua Sugar Estates (NSEL), a subsidiary of the commercial conglomerate Grupo Pellas, the founder of which Carlos Premas Charmollo is worth $2.7 billion and the wealthiest man in Nicaragua.  Yet he is content to see workers in his associated companies earn $4-6 a day and not be provided with adequate access to water, food and breaks during working hours – basic things which would dramatically reduce the incidence of CKDnT amongst the sugarcane workforce and the incidence of children. ISA is the largest sugar production facility in the country, producing over 300,000 metric tons of sugar during harvest season and accounting for more than 40% of the country’s sugar – it has the potential to set the standard for humane working conditions, curb child labor within the industry and reverse this epidemic of CKDnT which is further exacerbating poverty amongst so many families and forcing children into the labor force.


The Report concludes with some excellent recommendations to the three main groups of those with influence to reduce child labor among sugarcane workers and reverse the direction of this rising epidemic of CKDnT:


To Governments:

  • Increase access to medical care
  • Enforce labor laws preventing children working in hazardous conditions
  • Employ Ministry of Labor Inspectors
  • Increase the age of compulsory education
  • Hold private sugar companies jointly liable with third party contractors for legal violations of occupational health and safety of their subcontracted forces.


To Sugar producers:

  • Take responsibility for the actions of their third party contractors and hold them accountable
  • Comply with international and domestic legal protections for minor workers, including their right to health, physical and psychological integrity and freedom from exploitation
  • Provide programs and services which provide them with alternatives to hazardous labor
  • Provide training protective equipment
  • Ensure third party contractors are aware of types of work minors are legal prohibited from doing
  • Work with MITRAB to ensure children in Sugarcane communities are attending school.
  • Work towards the provision of vocational and health and safety training for all.


To Sugar buyers:

  • Adopt corporate policies that reflect domestic and international protections for child laborers
  • Modify contracts with suppliers to require compliance with domestic and international standards regarding child labor
  • Incorporate effective monitoring systems into the purchasing process to verify compliance with domestic and international child labor laws
  • Join muti-stakeholder initiatives that address child labor
  • Assist suppliers in building their offerings of non-hazardous positions to child laborers.