12 Jun 2016

168 million child workers: we must work with communities to stop exploitation

by Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development, Fairtrade International

A remarkable story emerged from Berlin recently when five children aged 10 and 11 approached high street fashion outlets asking for a job, saying they were willing to work long hours for low pay. Not surprisingly, they were rejected and told they were far too young to be employed - that it would be “child labour.”

The film of their experiment highlights the double standards which allow young children in some parts of the world to work long hours for low pay in harsh conditions - conditions which retailers and consumers wouldn’t accept in their own countries.

From coffee plantations in Latin America to West African cocoa farms, from garment factories in Bangladesh to the gold mines of south-east Asia, children as young as five work punishingly long hours in gruelling conditions that most adults would find intolerable. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), despite a downward global trend, there are still 168 million child workers, with more than half of them working in what’s officially classified as “hazardous labour”.

The ILO has proclaimed 2016 as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on what can be done to keep child labour out of supply chains. It notes that “all supply chains, from agriculture to manufacturing, services to construction, run the risk that child labour may be present.”

Fairtrade was the first organization of its kind to call for and implement a system wide, rights based child protection policy and procedure for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour. Since 2009, we’ve used a rights based approach (that is, based on internationally accepted human rights standards) to strengthen the protection of girls and boys at risk of being, or already involved in child labour. Every allegation or alert triggers a rigorous assessment involving input and advice from the relevant child rights organizations or experts. If confirmed, a report is sent to the appropriate government agency to follow up. If we have any doubts about their willingness or ability to act, we’ll involve a reputable specialist NGO.

It hasn’t been easy to get this far. We’ve been criticized for a lack of transparency and accused of cover-ups because we don’t “name and shame” Fairtrade producer organizations found in breach of our standards on child labour. But our experience shows that pointing the finger of blame does little to resolve the problem - we’d rather work with producer organizations so they understand why it’s wrong and ultimately harms not only their children but their business.

Fairtrade is clear that anyone who identifies a case of the worst forms of child labour has a duty to act to protect those children, either through confidential reporting to child protection agencies or direct remediation. Yes, of course, policies and training are vital. But far more important is embedding a commitment to children’s rights in each and every Fairtrade employee or contractor.

One hard lesson we’ve learned is that child protection measures imposed from above have limited positive impact. It’s the producers and workers themselves who are best placed to understand and address the sources of exploitation, and policies and procedures are much more effective when developed and implemented together with farmers, workers, communities and families themselves. It’s not perfect - there are limitations to this ground-up approach - but we’ve found that when producers themselves take the initiative, child labour can begin to be effectively tackled.

Here’s a great example: a few years ago an audit of a Fairtrade sugarcane cooperative in Belize uncovered evidence of underage children working during school hours. We worked with the producers to build a system to identify and withdraw children engaged in unacceptable work, and put in place longer-term measures to minimize the risk of it happening again. But - and this is the real point - it was the farmers themselves who organized training workshops with Fairtrade and UNICEF, introduced an awareness programme and child labour policy, and pioneered the Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) programme on child labour.

Children, young people and adults are at the heart of the programme. They identify potential and/or actual risks of children’s wellbeing and make recommendations on how to respond. Fairtrade developed the YICBMR system specifically to promote the wellbeing and development of children in and around producer organizations, and have piloted it in 12 countries over the last three years. Children and adults from the producer communities identify where children feel safe and unsafe, and design projects to enhance children’s wellbeing and development, going far beyond simply responding to child labour.

Fairtrade puts the emphasis on empowering producers and their communities. Children and young people decide what works best for them in continuously monitoring and responding to child labour. Our rights based approach combines protecting children against harm whilst at the same time enabling their participation and development. It’s not always easy to balance these core rights, because Fairtrade standards allow children to help out on family farms after school or during holidays. The work must be appropriate for the child’s age and physical condition, they must not work long hours, or in dangerous or exploitative conditions, and must have a parent or guardian supervising and guiding them.

This World Day Against Child Labour, Fairtrade calls upon companies who source certified commodities to go beyond the minimum requirements by supporting producers and farmers who are leading the way with youth inclusive, rights based, community driven, self-governing systems to identify and respond to child labour. Our recently revised Fairtrade Trader Standard encourages companies sourcing Fairtrade commodities to partner with producer organizations with a YICBMR system on child labour.

We still have a long way to go before we can be sure that Fairtrade is making real improvements in the wellbeing and development of boys and girls. And we can’t do it by ourselves. As those remarkable children in Berlin showed, as consumers we are all responsible for demanding to know where our food and clothes come from and how they were produced.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Sustainable Business on June 12, 2016.