Remediating Child Labour: Lessons learnt from Belizean Sugar Cane Producers

In 2014, a social audit at the Fairtrade-certified Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) found two children working on farms and not attending school.

The violations crossed a line: Fairtrade standards prohibit work that interferes with schooling for those under 15 and consider it child labour, even when a country’s law permits it.

The findings triggered a six-month suspension from Fairtrade for BSCFA, limiting how much sugar the association could sell to Fairtrade buyers while implementing corrective action – a potentially huge blow for about 5,000 of its farmers, their families, and the region’s economy.

At first, farmers pushed back. Even though Belizean sugar had been on the United States Department of Labour’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labour for years, the farmers didn’t relate those findings to what was happening in their own farming communities. After all, they hadn’t broken Belizean child labour law, which permits 14 year olds to be employed.

Following intensive and targeted training by Fairtrade International and UNICEF, the BSCFA farmers understood both the business risk and the risks to their communities if they did nothing.

In response, the BSCFA went big. They decided to use Fairtrade premiums to implement two types of child labour monitoring systems: One for farm operations (member-based), the other for entire communities (area based). They also insisted that their governments, miller and local NGOs come together to receive or deliver training and work in collaboration.

“We didn’t just want to do the minimum required to get our certificate back,” said Leonardo Cano, former Chairman of BSCFA, adding, “we wanted to promote the rights of children and young people.”

While this rights-based approach remains a work in progress, it appears to be paying off. An independent evaluation shows that communities and several other stakeholders in Belize share a deeper understanding and commitment to addressing child labour risks.

BSCFA’s approach also conforms with expectations laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Where violations occur, companies work to fix the situation and reduce the chances of it happening again.

Lawful Work v. Child Labour–where is the line?

Not all work done by children is child labour. Informed by ILO conventions on child labour, children are allowed to support their own family’s Fairtrade-certified farm as long as the work:

• is age appropriate and not exploitative, abusive or hazardous;

• does not interfere with schooling; and

• is supervised by a family member.

A worldwide problem

Despite decades of company codes of conduct, zero tolerance policies and prohibitions of child labour, the ILO estimates about 114 million children are involved in agricultural work that is harmful or interferes with schooling.

The causes are many, the solutions complex. There are no quick fixes for the plethora of challenges facing smallholder farmers and workers, which include inequality, discrimination, poverty, limited opportunities for education, few options for decent work, extreme market pressures and weak government support and oversight.

Then add the fear of losing business if child labour is uncovered, and supply chain transparency can seem like a liability instead of an opportunity.

Sugar cane specifically is one of the largest and most complex agricultural supply chains. It supports an estimated 100 million people worldwide. Children are often unpaid helpers, even doing tasks classified as hazardous like applying chemicals or manual harvesting.

Towards rights-based due diligence

That’s why Fairtrade has developed approaches that go far beyond tick-the-box requirements and auditing. For instance, the Latin American and Caribbean Producer Network (CLAC) works with smallholder farmers through a five-step due diligence process that starts with awareness raising and targeted risk assessments and ends with adopting a child protection policy and detailed monitoring protocols.

This entails, for example, awareness raising workshops where farmers define what tasks can be hazardous for children and participatory assemblies where children draw out and talk through their own perspectives.

“CLAC strongly believes that children’s rights and wellbeing are a shared responsibility between families, communities, producer organisations, companies and governmental actors,” tells Marike de Peña, a member of CLAC’s social compliance committee. “Therefore, we welcome all multi-stakeholder partnerships that aim to join efforts towards the eradication of child labour,” she adds.

Since 2011, the Fairtrade standard for smallholder farmer organisations has encouraged those with identified child labour risks to develop and implement an “Internal Control System” that helps these organisations oversee and monitor working conditions themselves.

In addition, Fairtrade International’s signature Youth Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) system has been piloted in a number of high-risk production areas involving cocoa, vanilla, flowers, gold and coffee. First developed in 2012, it is a rights-based approach that producer groups choose to use, to find, fix and prevent child labour, forced labour and/or gender-based violence.

Push and pull factors for child labour in sugar cane (ILO 2017)


Belizean Fairtrade sugar cane producer organisations continue in their fight against child labour. The BSCFA has partnered with a local NGO, an agricultural college, UNICEF and national and district level governments.

Their YICBMR programme enjoys widespread support from the association’s farmers and youth. A 2019 independent evaluation of the BSCFA programme showed an increased awareness of child labor indicators across generations.

“[T]he engagement is instant, older people, young people,” said one respondent. “You do not have to explain so much, just the community mapping activities will get them engaged. You get a lot of feedback.”

Through YICBMR, the BSCFA has:

• developed and published a commitment and policy on child labour and child protection;

• mapped community risk hotspots;

• hired local youth monitors and trained them on conducting awareness raising, risk assessment and monitoring through household surveys and community outreach;

• supported access to remedies in individual cases of child labour; and

• lobbied the government and the Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry to prioritize a legally binding national child labour monitoring and remediation system.

“The use of youth monitors minimizes the unequal power relations between adult researchers and the young participants in data collection and outreach,” says Anita Sheth, Fairtrade’s Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development.

Further, the BSCFA has raised awareness nationally and abroad, meeting with government representatives in Belize and Mexico, the United States, and international groups like the ILO and UNICEF.

Their work has spurred the Government of Belize to draw a list of tasks that are hazardous for children and the Labour Ministry to set up four committees — steps that will hopefully spur further government action to protect child rights.

Encouraged by the sugar industry, all three Fairtrade sugar cane producer organisations in Belize also partnered with their government on an EU funded project in 2018, to research child labour in the northern areas, using the YICBMR system. Findings from this study are influencing government action.


The YICBMR approach has helped raise awareness regarding child labour and the most severe violations are referred to authorities for remediation. If called upon, the producer organisations then support the government in remediation.

Nevertheless, some BSCFA members have felt their government is not doing its part to follow up on cases the community identifies, despite the extensive engagement between the BSCFA and the government.

“This creates a sense of disillusion in the community, because they get the impression that nothing is done,” according to one respondent in the 2019 evaluation. The exact number of referrals, remediation steps and outcomes aren’t public, partially because the producers fear those figures would be used against them.

But there’s no denying that child labour is vexingly difficult to remediate.

Victims may badly need income and wish to continue working, particularly if remediation programmes focus on long-term skill building and not on a family’s immediate needs. At BSCFA, local efforts have not been successful in helping affected youth find alternative ways of earning money, the 2019 evaluation states.

And then there’s the cost. Although BSCFA gained some initial funding from Fairtrade International, it has footed a large chunk of the bill. In 2018, it spent 45 percent of its BZ$3.5 million premium on the programme – and even more in previous years. That’s not sustainable.

BSCFA would like other supply chain actors to support the ongoing work. This is consistent with the UNGPs that see remediation as a shared responsibility of supply chain actors and governments.

“The industry, local communities and governments all need to play their part,” says Dr.Nyagoy Nyong’o, Fairtrade Global CEO (interim). “We will continue to work together with all these decision makers to remediate and prevent child labour and advance child rights.”

Fairtrade has commissioned an independent evaluation of producer organisations’ various approaches to monitor and respond to child labour. Results are expected to be published at the end of 2021 and will inform the further strengthening of Fairtrade’s work.

Fairtrade Certification and Suspension

Is Fairtrade cutting farmers off from their business partners as soon as audits find an individual human rights breach? In a typical audit, FLOCERT finds many breaches of Fairtrade Standards. In the spirit of continuous improvement, the audited organisation is then asked to present a corrective action plan. If the organisation makes and implements the plan, business relationships stay unaffected.

Where breaches are serious, however, Fairtrade certification may be suspended until corrective action is taken. That limits the organisation’s sales. If the breaches continue, FLOCERT can also decertify the organisation.

Suspension and decertification are designed to reduce the risk that commodities sold as Fairtrade are produced with child labour, for example.

Importantly, Fairtrade Standards are not a top-down construct. In Standards’ reviews, farmers and workers are widely consulted and have half the decision-making power in the committee that approves the Standards. Fairtrade also supports farmers’ human rights and environmental work through many means, such as minimum prices, premiums, training and guidance.

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