10 Mar 2016

Belize sugar cane farmers aim to be “best in class” for protecting children and young people

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Participants in some of the trainings aimed at minimizing the risk of child labour.
Image courtesy of Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA)

When independent auditors found evidence of underage children working during school hours on two Fairtrade sugar cane farms in Belize, they took swift action, suspending their certification and issuing corrective action to put things right before Fairtrade trading could resume.

For the sugar cane farmers it was a potentially crippling blow - the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) had been trading for more than fifty years and joined the Fairtrade system in 2008.

With suspension, the Association’s five thousand farmers faced losing millions of dollars a year in Fairtrade Premium payments and being cut off from vital Fairtrade markets - and all that after years of struggling with hurricanes, falling sugar prices and the impacts of climate change.

“We had a choice,” says Leonardo Cano, Chairman of BSCFA. “Either get our act together and sort out the child labour issues, or lose our Fairtrade certification altogether. The six-month suspension was a real wake-up call that we had to address the issues around children labouring in the sugar industry, however challenging that might be.”

Following the inspection and suspension in 2014 Fairtrade challenged BSCFA to put in place an ambitious programme to help identify and withdraw children who were already engaged in unacceptable work, and longer-term measures to minimize the risk of it happening again. But for the farmers, this wasn’t enough.

“We wanted to become champions for children’s wellbeing,” says Cano. “We didn’t just want to do the minimum required to get our certificate back, we wanted to promote the rights of children and young people, to protect them from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. This is all about building for the future.”

The sugar farmers quickly realized they would need help if they were to succeed, and asked Fairtrade and UNICEF to organize workshops and training sessions for both BSCFA directors and staff. The training focused on children’s rights (as covered by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), the legal requirements on child labour in Belize, and the negative impacts that child labour can have on both young people and their communities.

“Child labour is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers and workers in developing countries,” says Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development.

“The International Labour Organization estimates there are around 168 million child labourers in the world, and around 98 million of them work in agriculture. Fairtrade’s rights-based approach to eliminating child labour aims to address root causes, enables producers to go beyond reactive responses to child labour detections and encourages decent youth employment. So many young children we interviewed in Belize are not interested in sugar cane farming or processing as a sustainable livelihood. With a country dependent on sugar, this is a troubling fact.”

“Fairtrade has exacting standards on workers’ rights and child and forced labour, and the fact that the audit turned up serious non-compliance issues only goes to show that those standards are being robustly enforced,” says Sheth. ‘It’s great that the sugar cane farmers took the initiative to sort this out themselves. They recognized they had a problem and were determined to do everything they could to put it right.”

The awareness programme was introduced to all 18 branches of the BSCFA, followed by the introduction of an organization-wide comprehensive child labour policy and child protection statement and procedures. This included an Internal Control System to track, among other things, the ages and involvement of workers in sugar cane production.

Fairtrade International also helped introduce a Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) System on Child Labour. The system was developed together with the sugar cane producers themselves to find out if the Association was interested in establishing a self-governing system to detect and respond to child labour on a continuous and improving basis. After six months, BSCFA and Fairtrade International partnered in a joint agreement to pilot the system in two sugar cane growing communities.

At the heart of the YICBMR programme is the active participation of children and young people, including adults in the communities who identify any risks to children’s well-being and make recommendations on how to respond to them.

Six special youth monitors were hired to support farmers in the new programme and to report back so the pilots can be rolled out across the Association. BSCFA says that the fact they allocated $US 150,000 to fund the project following their suspension shows how serious they are about increasing the well-being of children and young people in their communities.

“The project is a partnership between us and Fairtrade International,” says Cano. “It was really important we included both children and adults from each of the pilot communities, to build their awareness and knowledge of how ethical trade can have a positive impact for the next generation of producers, traders and consumers. It's all about youth inclusion and civic participation and how to come up with real solution together.”

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Children have a right to attend school.
Image courtesy of Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA)

In the two communities chosen for the pilot – Yo Creek Village in Orange Walk District and San Victor Village, Corozal District – children at risk of child labour and exploitation were identified and action taken to remediate them. These included scholarships for out of school children, alternative income generation activities for young people, and lobbying relevant government agencies, school authorities and civil society groups for children to be in safe environments. FLOCERT – the independent body which certifies Fairtrade products – has since carried out follow-up audits on BSCFA corrective actions and lifted the suspension.

It’s not just children and young people who benefit. Julia Clark from Tate & Lyle Sugars, who buy sugar from Belize, says “It is important that the sugar we buy is sustainably produced. It’s in our interest to make sure no young people are working on the sugar cane farms where we source our sugar.”

In October 2015 BSCFA hosted a public meeting to present their findings and the prevention programme, with representatives from national and local government agencies, educational institutions and industry from Belize, and representatives from the embassies of Mexico, the USA and Honduras in attendance.

In January this year, Fairtrade International, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fairtrade Small Producers (CLAC), and BSCFA hosted the first stakeholders’ meeting to plan how to roll out the monitoring and remediation system, not only across the rest of the BSCFA communities but other Fairtrade sugar cane growers in the country. One aim is to explore the possibility of including the work being done under the government’s national efforts for the elimination of child labour.

“We aim to be best in class when it comes to rooting out child labour in the sugar industry’” says Cano. “We want sugar from Belize to be removed from the public watch-lists for child labour - that’s why we’re investing so much time, effort and money into getting it right. However, we cannot do this alone. Government, industry and civil society groups must come together, pool resources and work together decisively to ensure sugar from Belize is produced not only in compliance with Fairtrade Standards and national law, but also in accordance with the rights of children as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”