28 Jul 2022

A critical step in the right direction – Fairtrade welcomes launch of Belize national strategy against child labour

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(c) Photographer

A new strategy and policy launched by the Government of Belize to tackle child labour and reduce its incidence by eliminating the worst forms by 2025 has gone into effect this month following extended dialogue with national stakeholders, cooperatives, and social justice organizations, including Fairtrade.

“This is an extraordinary development and a critical step in the right direction,” said Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development (informal sectors). “Fairtrade has been hard at work for many years collaborating with government, NGOs, supply chain actors and smallholder farmer organizations, including communities, to ensure worst forms of child labour are eliminated in Belize and specifically in the country’s northern regions where sugar cane largely grows.”

At the strategy roll-out earlier this summer, Oscar Requena, Belize’s Minister of Rural Transformation, Community Development, Labour and Local Government, and Andy Westby, Chairperson of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), a long-standing Fairtrade partner, signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to collaborate on efforts to fight child labour and formalizing their partnership “to make Belize a child labour-free zone.”

According to the Government of Belize, the new policy makes several new commitments including “removing all ambiguities in the Labour Act as to what constitutes child labour, harmonizing the definition of a child across legislations, establishing clear inter-agency communication and data sharing protocols in child labour cases, and fostering within the private sector the development of socially responsible code of ethics that protects children from sexual abuse and exploitation.” In addition, the new Child Labour Policy and Strategy makes several references to the work Fairtrade and its producer organizations have done in striving towards the elimination of child labour in northern Belize.

“The fact that the government of Belize signed a Memorandum of Understanding with BSCFA is indicative of the important role Fairtrade producer organizations have played in working to eliminate child labour in the sugar cane sector in Belize,” Sheth added.

Child labour remains an ongoing scourge of the global labour market. The number of children in child labour worldwide has risen to 160 million, an increase of 8.4 million children in the past four years, according to ILO estimates. And the continuing COVID pandemic has eaten away any gains made in the fight against child labour as it has brought many farmers and agricultural workers around the world closer to poverty. In fact, an additional 9 million children globally are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 because of the pandemic. Job and income losses, school closures, and lack of adequate social protection and of prioritizing child rights has meant that children already working, especially in rural agriculture, do so under ever worsening conditions.

Fairtrade has long regarded child rights as central to addressing child labour. It’s why the Fairtrade Standard for Small-scale Producer Organizations makes references to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child and closely links child labour and child protection.

However, remediating child labour is not always straightforward. It renders a duty of care, as indicated in the UN Convention, on a child’s right to be protected against harm, following four key principles: non-discrimination, best interest of the child, the rights of a child to survival and development, and respecting the views of child in accordance with their age and maturity.

“This last principle of eliciting and including impacted children’s and young people’s inputs into remediation actions is so important because this could make all the difference in ensuring the corrective measures taken to withdraw child labourers actually work,” continued Sheth. “Frequently, persons withdrawn from child labour return to work at a later period or get recruited into more dangerous jobs. That’s why we need to hear from child labourers and seek their views in developing projects to ensure children removed are provided with alternatives that really work for them and their families.”

Since 2015, Fairtrade has partnered with BSCFA to develop a rights-based approach to identify and respond to child labour occurring on farms, as well as to develop projects to address children’s insecurities in and around farming communities. This unique Fairtrade pilot program, called the Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation System on Child Labour (YICBMR), has focused on addressing the root of the problem by training and empowering local youth to identify instances of child labour and work with impacted children, households, and community leaders on finding inclusive solutions to prevent further occurrences.

Recognizing the key roles that youth play in sugar cane production and in data collection, BSCFA agreed to work with Fairtrade International last year to develop its Youth Inclusive Policy to enable decent youth employment, skills development, and business opportunities, including creating a Youth Advisory Group to input into BSCFA’s decision making processes, involving the delivery of services, premium funded program development and implementation, capacity building and learning opportunities. The BSCFA’s Youth Inclusive Policy was officially launched in June 2022, with Government officials from Belize’s Ministries of Labour, Agriculture, Human Development Services, Youth, Sugar Industry Control Board, and Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute in attendance and alongside officials from the Embassies of the US and Guatemala. Fairtrade International will continue to support BSCFA to establish a Youth Platform where young people in sugar cane producing areas will be able to exchange ideas, discuss, organize, fund raise and plan for enabling a more youth inclusive sugar cane sector.

“We have benefited from employing this Fairtrade’s Youth Inclusive model as we have seen first-hand how enthusiastic and committed young people have been in the fight against child labour, said Zune Canche, Protection Lead at BSCFA. “And we are continuing to make plans to ensure that young people are involved in our small producer organization and the building of a child labour-free future here in Belize.”

Andy Westby, BSCFA Chairperson, agreed.

“BSCFA remains proud and determined to support our government, the sugar industry, and any other stakeholder in the fight against child labour,” he added. “This is a privilege as we dream of a world where the next generation is respected and treated with dignity by our generation.”