12 Jun 2022

Child rights remain fundamental to the fight against child labour

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A sign at a sugar cane community in Belize reads 'Children have a right to relax and play in a safe environment'.
Image © Jose Luis Casuso / CLAC

By Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development (informal sectors)

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. 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 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and closely links child labour and child protection. We understand the harm children in farming communities can face--especially if they are identified in child labour and not safely withdrawn and prevented from becoming engaged in even worse forms of labour.

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.

A rights-based approach that balances immediate child protection with longer-term best interests and wellbeing of at-risk children is necessary to make progress towards eliminating child labour by 2025, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But what does this mean in concrete terms?

Systems have to work together to support children’s rights

For Fairtrade, when child labour is identified, either through audits, producer-led monitoring and response systems or through commissioned research, our Protection Policy for Children and Vulnerable Adults is triggered. We then act to ensure that the child’s case is handled such that no further harm is done to the impacted child. Our number one priority is the safety and wellbeing of the child.

When it comes to the worst forms of child labour, trained Fairtrade staff in our Producer Networks report the violation of the child’s rights to the national protection agencies of the government, when available, and to local child rights experts when unavailable. Fairtrade takes these actions to comply with applicable national laws and to prioritize the child’s prolonged safety, as indicated in Fairtrade Standards. In other words, children are not simply withdrawn from Fairtrade certified farms, but care is taken that they are not engaged in child labour elsewhere or find themselves in more harmful situations.

However, Fairtrade acting alone will not banish the crisis of child labour.

Governments need to prioritize children in their policy making, especially as countries work to repair the social fissures caused or deepened by the pandemic. They also need to strengthen child protection systems and implement projects to stop violence against children, which includes child labour.

Businesses also have a fundamental responsibility to protect children from harm, such as child labour. When businesses solely rely on farming households to remediate child labour, it means that the cost of correction falls disproportionately on those living in poverty and further extends intergenerational poverty. Fairtrade is working to correct this imbalance by calling upon companies to contribute to the labour and time costs of child labour monitoring and remediation systems.

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A student in a second grade class in Côte d'Ivoire writes at the chalkboard.
Mohamed Aly Diabate / Fairtrade / Fairpicture

Fairtrade’s inclusive approach to child labour elimination

On top of standards and training for farmers on child rights, Fairtrade offers deeper interventions to mitigate and address child labour.

We have designed a signature Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system for child labour, recognizing that whole communities, including management at producer organizations, women, youth, and children have a voice in identifying child labour occurrences, defining risks, and proposing solutions. This area-based and youth-involved system engages all stakeholders to progressively advance the system into an action plan, led by the national government, for the elimination of child labour--avoiding duplications and enabling coordination between the actors. Such engagement is time consuming and expensive. However, a study published by Fairtrade last year showed that this approach is more effective in remediation of child labour when compared to the more typical farm-focused Internal Control Systems.

Fairtrade also contributes to addressing poverty, one of the root causes of child labour, by offering the safety net of minimum prices and the additional Fairtrade Premium – an amount on top of the crop’s selling price – that certified producer organizations choose to invest in projects of their choice. In 2020, small-scale producer organizations spent about eight percent of their Premium funds on community projects, including education and schools.

Furthermore, Fairtrade has also begun work toward enabling living incomes (for farmers) and living wages (for plantation workers) by setting voluntary pricing structures and developing pilot programmes with commercial partners to invest in aspects like income diversification and improving crop yields to support farming households to move out of poverty.

Fairtrade has also established Women’s Leadership Schools, in each of the three regions where we operate, to work towards correcting gender imbalances in farming households, recognizing that this is essential for inclusive economic development. When women are more empowered in their households, including contributing to earning income, they tend to prioritize education and other aspects of their children’s wellbeing.

Fairtrade is also piloting other youth-inclusive strategies, as 70 percent of the world’s youth population (defined as the ages between 16 and 28) live in agricultural areas. While it is said that young people often do not see a future in agriculture, many are actively involved and invested in agricultural activities, such as production, capacity building, provision of goods and services, logistics, and value addition (such as coffee roasting, or developing a seedling nursery), or work as farmers or farm workers. They are engaged through formal and informal wage work, unpaid family labour, or self-employed. Yet, there is a lack of an enabling environment to facilitate youth engagement and decent livelihoods in agriculture. Fairtrade is engaging several producer organizations to set up youth working groups and explore options for decent youth employment, skills development, and business opportunities. Findings from this engagement will inform the producer organizations on the initiatives needed to involve the next generation of Fairtrade.

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Koptan Gayo Megah Berseri coffee cooperative in Indonesia has a plant nursery and training programme for young adult farmers.
Rosa Panggabean / Fairtrade / Fairpicture

Action is needed – especially by those with the most resources

Child labour issues are certainly complicated, but it’s clear that actions taken thus far are not enough.

On this year’s World Day Against Child Labour, with the theme of Universal Social Protection, we are calling on governments, companies, and other stakeholders to prioritize child rights and get serious about addressing the root causes to child labour.

An active pathway toward living incomes and living wages must be a priority. Legislation in the EU and elsewhere can help accelerate adoption of living income requirements as part of human rights and environmental due diligence for products that are being sold on supermarket shelves in their respective regions or countries.

Producer organizations and their communities must be supported with the financial resources to take a holistic approach to enforcing child rights and ensuring child protection, and to responding to child labour cases responsibly within this framework. Local governments have the responsibility to ensure quality schools, occupational health and safety rules, and social services to families when needed.

In the face of climate change and rapidly rising costs that are reducing any progress that farmers have made in recent years, we can’t let another year go by where we talk about the problem or even count the child labour numbers, without at the same time demanding the financial commitment and actions that are crucial to remediating child labour and expanding child rights.

In fact, doing nothing costs dearly.