Fairtrade seeks to unlock the power of local leadership as an important key to eliminating child labour

05 March 2014

An article by Anita Sheth, the Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development at Fairtrade International. Read more about Fairtrade's perspective on child rights here.

In June 2013, Fairtrade International passed a historic decision. Producers and workers became half owners of the Fairtrade system, with 50% of the votes in the annual General Assembly, the Fairtrade system’s highest decision making body. The decision is one that is rooted in Fairtrade’s vision of producers having more control over their own future.

“With rights come responsibilities,” says Marike de Peña, leader of the 400 member strong banana cooperative Banelino in Dominican Republic, and recently elected Chair of Fairtrade International’s Board.

“In the paradigm of shared ownership, I look forward to Fairtrade organizations becoming even greater change agents in a world full of injustice and unacceptable human practices linked to poverty, discrimination and inequality.”

In this spirit, Fairtrade International is also looking to the three Producer Networks in Asia and the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean to scale up their responsibilities to support on the ground work towards increased well-being of producers, workers, children and young people. The recognition of the vital role of local leadership in development is not new.

However, all too often local ownership is interpreted as local people delivering on projects designed by outsiders. Concerns about capacity of locally-based groups to design effective local projects can hinder a genuine ownership and responsibility. Fairtrade has not been without these fears, but as we continue on our journey towards equitable, multi-stakeholder partnership, we have learned important lessons that reinforce the fact that local ownership and leadership is a decisive condition to increase Fairtrade’s impact and accountability to farmers, workers and members, and their communities.

This has become particularly evident in our work to eliminate and prevent unacceptable forms of child labour in Fairtrade organizations and their communities. The past five years have taught us that our Standards, based upon relevant international laws, must go beyond producer groups and their members simply being able to recite Fairtrade requirements on child labour. Instead, we see an increasing leading role for producer organizations to become change agents in the fight against unacceptable social practices.

Over the years, we have experienced diverse responses in producers’ willingness to acknowledge, and therefore address, the existence of child labour. We have seen producers take solid leadership in the fight against child labour in some places, while in others denial of the existence of unacceptable practices remains an obstacle to progress. Unless local communities lead the efforts and accept accountability for the well-being of children and youth, auditing and certification decisions on child labour is insufficient in addressing root causes.

Fairtrade producer organizations and their communities must exercise their right to discuss, analyse and make certain decisions based on their own local understanding of real or potential risks to well-being of children’s labour involvement. Fairtrade is therefore encouraging producers to establish Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation Systems on Child Labour as a first step in a proactive process to increase the well-being of children and youth in Fairtrade organizations and local communities.

This system combines community realities with international and national legislation and enables producers, their communities (including young people themselves) and their representative Producer Networks to become key agents of change in the identification and remediation of unacceptable child labour practices. Based on pilots, training and testing by producer organisations in Zambia, Honduras, Cote d’Ivoire and Paraguay, a manual outlining this Youth Inclusive Approach to remediation is due to be published later this year.

Fairtrade has learnt from conducting rights based focus groups with approximately 500 children and youth in Fairtrade organizations and their communities in tea in India and Kenya; cocoa in Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana; cotton in Burkina Faso and India; sugar in Zambia, Fiji, and Paraguay; coffee in Honduras; and bananas in Dominican Republic. Working children can teach us about their lives, the impact of their work on themselves and their peers and the alternatives as they understand them. Of those participating, only five children and youth in these communities saw any prospect of a sustainable livelihood in agriculture, almost all of them had engaged in farming work after school and during holidays and weekends, and reported not liking it.

When asked about the future of farming and who will be involved, more than 70% of them noted that it would be reserved for “the uneducated, migrants from poorer areas and countries, people who do not speak English, French or Spanish or grandparents and poorer relatives.” Young people’s own insights have helped us understand the need to be even more proactive in the prevention of exploitation and abuse involved with children’s engagement in agricultural production, especially with regard to hazardous labour and sexual harassment.

These are disturbing realities and Fairtrade International has reacted to them, through the trigger of our Child Protection Policy and Procedures. The development of these inclusive, producer and young people-led processes remain backed up by an increasingly rigorous standards and auditing process that has proved itself capable of both detecting and responding to allegations of child labour, including in its worst forms. In the last two years alone, seeking the advice of both international and local child rights partners, Fairtrade has investigated and responded on this issue in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, India and Fiji.

However, we recognize that this is not enough. We need a bottom-up approach as well, where Fairtrade Producer Networks directly engage producer groups through their own Child Protection Policies and Procedures working through and with rights-based partners. Thus throughout 2013, Fairtrade has supported the capacity of the Producer Networks to develop among other things, their own child protection policies and procedures to ensure the increased well-being of children and youth within the producer groups they represent. In the Africa and Latin America networks, these will be in place by the end of 2014, with Asia currently in discussions.

Fairtrade International is looking forward to continuing to support the Producer Networks in achieving this strong vision with their members. It is now for Producer Networks to lead the way in consulting with communities, including working children and young people, and identify more ways for Fairtrade to move beyond adherence to standard requirements on child labour to become the best in its class in enabling the well-being of children and youth in and around Fairtrade Organizations.

“Producers have always been in the driving seat of Fairtrade. They have always led as they organize their co-ops, decide on how to use the Fairtrade Premium or build their trade,” said Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive of Fairtrade International. “In addition, they now have a more central role in the institution of Fairtrade, as well as on their co-ops. This provides a unique opportunity for Fairtrade to make sustainable gains in correcting child labour practices on a continuous and improving basis and thereby substantially reduce the current risks to children’s well-being.”

New Chair of Fairtrade International, Marike de Peña, agrees: “Fairtrade enables vulnerable people to empower themselves and their organizations and start to take individual and collective control over their lives and futures. Small farmers and workers, thanks to Fairtrade, are already questioning and fighting injustice, inequality and poverty. They are, and should be the engine of change to move us towards a fairer world.”

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