Soda “sweetened” with child marriage, hysterectomies and debt bondage

Is your favorite soda “sweetened” with child marriage, hysterectomies and debt bondage?

  • Published on
    March 24, 2024
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  • Category:
    Child Slavery, Debt Bondage, Forced Labor
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A recent study by the New York Times and Fuller Project reveals the not-so-sweet side of sugarcane production in India. In the state of Maharashtra, the community has been transformed, with help from Pepsi and Coca-Cola, into a sugar producing powerhouse. But this transformation comes at a cost for local women and girls in the form of child marriages, hysterectomies and illegal generational debt bondage, with the U.N. labeling it forced labor.

Girls marrying within months of their first period

The international community regards child marriage as a human rights violation and in India, child marriage is illegal. But rooting it out has proved extremely difficult as child marriage has deeply ingrained cultural and economic causes. It is especially entrenched in the sugarcane industry as cutting sugarcane is a two-person job known as koyta, and families in Maharashtra are so desperately poor, child marriage can tick two boxes for them, both related to poverty.

Archana Ashok Chaure who was married at 14 and has given her life to sugarcane stated:

“If we are married, (our parent’s) stress reduces and the responsibility is shifted to our husband’s shoulders, so they marry us off.”

On top of that, most workers are living in debt bondage having been advanced money at the start of the season. Husband-and-wife teams cutting cane can make twice as much as someone working alone. Instead of receiving wages, they simply work to pay off the year’s advance from their employer, sometimes even having residual debt from the previous year. A system that can lead to generational debt bondage as it is passed from parents to children. Any additional costs incurred by the workers over the season, like medical needs or fees workers must pay if they miss a day of work, are added to the debt pool and carried over year after year making climbing out of debt bondage almost impossible. That means child marriage is less of a decision and more of a survival tactic for families.

Hysterectomies as a solution to avoid missing work

When missing work incurs a fee and means losing desperately needed wages, women and girls working in cane production literally can’t afford time off for painful periods or pregnancies. Having a hysterectomy enables them to keep working, “undistracted” by doctor’s visits for a pregnancy or the challenges of dealing with menstruation needs in a field with no access to running water, toilets or privacy of any kind. For these reasons, many women and girls are left to feeling they have no choice but to get the surgery.

Speaking about her own hysterectomy in her early 30’s, Ms. Chaure said:

“I had to rush to work immediately after the operation, as we had taken an advance, we neglect our health in front of money…we have wasted our whole lives in this work”

Having children is commonplace with most girls marrying young and having children in their teens. To avoid this, they undergo a hysterectomy, often at a young age, to stop periods, eliminate the need for routine gynecological care, and as an extreme measure to prevent uterine cancer. However, the removal of a woman’s uterus, especially before 40, has lasting consequences. That means instead of lessening their need for medical care, it raises their risks for short and long-term health issues. Abdominal pain and blood clots are some of the short-term risks, but a hysterectomy is often accompanied by the removal of one or both ovaries as well. That can bring about early menopause, raising their chances of heart disease and osteoporosis among other ailments. On top of that many, like Ms. Chaure, go into further debt to afford the surgery, ensuring they are locked into debt bondage for years or lifetimes to come.

Everyone says “somebody else is responsible”

According to the report, sugar producers and buyers have known about this system and the abuse it fosters for years. In 2019, Coca-Cola consultants visited the area and found children working in the fields and workers under debt bondage. Among the interviewees was even a 10-year-old girl who spoke about her experience. And while the report cites a representative of Pepsi Co as stating that the company found the working conditions of sugar-cane cutters in Maharashtra “deeply concerning”, both companies claim it is not their responsibility and point to policies pledging to “root out human rights abuses in their supply chains.” But the reality is company representatives seldom if ever visit the fields. They mostly rely on the sugar-mill owners to oversee any labor issues and the mill owners keep it all at arm’s length too, as they use contractors to hire laborers.

The report states that mill owners take this view:

“Child marriage, underage labor, wage debt and working conditions are social problems that have nothing to do with the industry…contractors are responsible for the workers”

Third party contractors are hired by mill owners to recruit migrants from far-off villages, transport them to the fields and to pay their wages. Mill owners say how those workers are treated is between the workers themselves and the contractors. But the report found that these contractors are often young men whose only qualification for the job is that they own a vehicle for transporting workers and they don’t have the skills or authority to dictate working conditions or terms of employment. So, the abuse continues year after year, generation after generation, with no one taking responsibility. Meanwhile women and girls like Ms. Chaure pay the price, stating:

“It makes me so mad when those people say, ‘Nobody forced you to be a laborer’. Nobody chooses this life.”

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John Thomas
3 months ago

I have contacted the Coop retail group again today to demand why these particularly dreadful soft drinks are on the shelves of their supposedly principled stores. A total waste of mountains of sugar and harvested by slaves. These drinks have phosphoric acid included to stop the inevitable nausea produced by consuming such huge quantities of sugar. The bad news doesn’t stop there as phosphorus is a non-renewable life supporting resource.

john mascarenhas
john mascarenhas
3 months ago

i am an indian agriculturist and never knew these abuses were taking place. i know that every year many sugarcane famers commit suicide because of debts. the people who buy sugar from the criminals MUST BE HELD RESPONSIBLE INCLUDING COCO-COLA AND PEPSI WHO MAKE BIG MONIES ON THEIR PRODUCTS BASED ON SUGAR!! i will not buy another coke or pepsi. SHAME ON YOU AMERICAN BASTARDS! YOU MAKE YOUR BILLIONS ON SLAVE LABOUR!

Angie Pintos
Angie Pintos
3 months ago

This whole thing is horrendous. How can any exploiter sleep at night?! Have they no morality or conscience whatsoever?! The more I learn about modern slavery, the more despicable they seem to be.

Ruth Hawe
3 months ago

I visited India for the first time in February, and whilst passing sugarcane fields with women working in them I did wonder what conditions they were working under. We also saw small trucks crammed with young women. Now reading this deeply troubling article I see that my concern was warranted. Everywhere we went all of the hard work was being done by hand, not with machines. Also as these women will not have children to take care of them in their older age, there is no support available to them.

Susan
Susan
3 months ago
  1. It’s all about GREED!

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