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October 03, 2007

Kenya: Children cutting cane

On 24 September, Jorge Chullen, the coordinator of the IUF global sugar program has visited the South Nyanza Sugar Company accompanied by a delegation of the Kenya Union of Sugar, Plantation and Allied Workers (KUSPAW), as part of a 4-day program supported by the Social Justice Fund of the Canadian Auto Workers (SJF-CAW).

The sugar company is located near the Kisii area, south of Kisumu, in the western region on the country; a two-and-a-half hour ride, dotted with about ten police check-points, and roads with limited capacity to handle all the transit that rides on them.

The union delegation was able to observe some agricultural operations in the cane fields of independent farmers who supply the mill. At a farm in Kelowe, four children, aged 10-12, have been seen cutting cane; and several others, even younger, hanging around in the fields.

One main reason given by the workers for the children's presence was that some of them have finished elementary school and their families have no money to pay for high school; therefore they have no other option than to work in the cane fields. Some other said that they help their families, and one of them was an orphan of father and mother who looks after his younger siblings. One of the boys said he gives some of the money he earns (about USD 60 per month) to his parents.

The cane-cutting operations have been outsourced by the South Nyanza Sugar Company, which by legislation is prevented from doing anything else than milling cane. The outsourcing practices have worsened working conditions considerably, and, even when the cutters cut cane green and the work is heavier than with burned cane, they receive nothing in terms of protective equipment or tools for the job. Workers talk about "before" and "now". "Now," with the outsourced operations, they get no clothing, no cane-knife, no boots, no hats… nothing. Not even drinking water is distributed to them, they said. They bring water from home, and when it's gone… it's gone.

Workers complain that the agreement between the contractor and the sugar company gives the former a certain amount of money to pay them, from which he takes a cut. When asked if first aid is, one cutter said: "there is nothing of that sort." They even have to buy their own cane-knife. And, the one which they can afford is not the best tool for cutting cane!

The delegation has visited also the living conditions of cane cutters in Owiro camp that showed to be extremely poor. A member of the company management staff, who guided the visit, explained that the company has no responsibility to ensure some decent living conditions as the cutting operations are outsourced.
The camp has also a poor-equipped room which functions as a pre- elementary school for kids.