11 Jun 2014

Fairtrade Farmers Gear Up to Address Child Labour

2014 Paraguay Youth Inclusive Training 870
A Fairtrade liaison officer conducts a training with sugar farmers in Paraguay.
Image: Fairtrade International

Caroline Hickson, Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships at Fairtrade International, writes of a recent trip to Paraguay to attend a training with Fairtrade sugar farmers.

This year the International Labour Organization (ILO) aims to ‘give a #RedCard to Child Labour’, calling upon the world to accelerate progress towards eradicating child labour, in particular through including social protection systems as a key part of the response.

The ILO estimates there are 168 million children still working across the globe. On World Day Against Child Labour we realize that while worldwide condemnation of child labour and standards prohibiting it are important, they are only part of the answer to successfully eradicating it.

Knowing where to start

Fairtrade has learned over the years that standards and certification alone are not sufficient to tackle this deeply rooted problem. Working in areas of known risk for child labour, we have developed a comprehensive approach to tackling it (Read more about our approach here). To proactively assess the risk, Fairtrade triangulates certification data and our own internal child protection reports with global indexes such as the US Department of Labor List, the Maplecroft Index, and US Trafficking in Persons Reports (TiPs), among others.

Paraguay is one of the countries on the Child Labour Global Index for sugarcane production. In February, Fairtrade hosted a child labour discussion and training there with producers and held focus groups with school going children and youth. I accompanied Anita Sheth, Fairtrade’s Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development, along with a representative of New Jersey’s Montclair State University’s School of Business who is supporting Fairtrade’s piloting of a training manual in Paraguay. My trip was to learn more from producers and their communities about Fairtrade’s rights based approach to child labour prevention.

Coaxing the problem out of hiding

We first meet with a local NGO tackling child labour in Paraguay, called ‘Abrazo’ or ‘Hug’ in English. “It is more difficult in the country,” Ruth Ortega, a project worker, tells us. “In the cities you see the working children. Here there is a culture of hiding. No one wants to admit the problem.”

This is borne out during the first training on Child Labour with the Fairtrade farmers. Child labour statistics produced by the Government of Paraguay are met with suspicion and heads are universally shaken.

“No, we don’t have this problem on any of our farms,” one farmer after another asserts.

The response demonstrates Fairtrade’s belief that an approach based purely on rules and sanction could never suffice. Millions of people living in poverty are dependent on selling into export supply chains. The potential loss of sales poses a fundamental threat to their wellbeing and survival. It is no surprise that the fear of the punishment from being ‘found out’ can lead to greater denial and hiding, pushing the problem to more remote areas and increasing the risk for the most vulnerable children.

Anita continues to probe the topic. After some discussion, one farmer shares that it is difficult to be everywhere in the cane fields at all times during the busy harvest time.

“Maybe.., it's possible that some poorer member of the cooperative or some workers bring their children during the harvest.”

Farming is the last thing I want to do when I grow up

We also share our findings from focus groups conducted with children and young people – a frightening glimpse into the future where not one child wanted to follow their parents into sugar farming or processing.

Young people had had no problem explaining the reasons behind their choice: “Too hot,” “Too heavy work,” “I get sunburned.”

“So who will pick the cane then, if you won’t?” we asked.

“Poor people,” came one response. “People who don’t come from here,” shrugged another. “It is not our problem to solve,” said the daughter of one sugar producer.

It is clear that if Paraguay wants a thriving sugar industry in the future, people need to think through how farming can be a better place overall for children and young people. And we’ve heard this same story from young people in cocoa, sugar, and coffee communities across the world.

Solving children’s real problems

Fairtrade frames its child labour prevention work within a proactive rights based approach to increase the wellbeing of children and youth in and around Fairtrade producer organizations. In line with Fairtrade’s empowerment model, a cooperative can self-select (through the vote of its General Assembly) to establish a child labour prevention programme and make it part of their Fairtrade Development Plan. Fairtrade supports the initial set-up, encompassed in a pilot project called ‘Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation’, and then the farmers and community, including young people themselves take over.

As the Fairtrade group in Paraguay discusses the idea of enhancing children’s overall wellbeing, the atmosphere in the room tangibly changes. A woman farmer is on the edge of her seat nodding and smiling. As the session winds up, farmers crowd the Fairtrade team, asking more detailed questions.

The next day we have a session with the Board members of the first potential Fairtrade sugar cooperative in Paraguay to take up the project. After an afternoon packed with information and discussion, we leave them to confer on whether they wish to take the project to the Cooperative’s General Assembly for their members to vote on.

A month later, I hear that the vote has been a resounding yes. In May, Anita returned to Paraguay, accompanied by Fairtrade Liaison Officer and a representative from the Business School, along with a representative of the Fairtrade producer network, CLAC. This training was aimed at the Board members and the technical representatives of the sugar cooperative and involved ways of establishing the self-governing system, deciding on the roles and responsibilities of the Child Labour Committee and identifying risk areas for the phased implementation.

Fairtrade farmers and communities taking the reins

The farmers and their community in this cooperative in Paraguay are just at the beginning of their journey to rigorous self-governance and community ownership of the issue.

They have already selected the young people who will work with the Fairtrade officer to monitor and remediate child labour in the sugar producing areas. A child rights agency has committed to assist them in building their capacity on child protection and employing child centred methods for data collection.

The cooperative is starting to understand the importance of engaging their children and young people not just in learning how to grow sugarcane, but also in learning about child labour, the risks to well-being and the importance of decent youth employment.

These farmers are not alone. Interest is spreading globally with more cooperatives asking Fairtrade to come and talk to them about this proactive approach which engages children and young people in conversation with adult community members.

It's a long-term task to ensure a farming environment that provides decent work and promotes a sustainable and attractive future for and with young people. But there is no question that Fairtrade farmers and their community members must take centre stage and lead the way in collaboration with their governments and civil society organizations to ensure the next generation of socially responsible producers, processors, traders and manufacturers.

These sugarcane producers have chosen to do just that.

Find our more about Fairtrade's work to address child labour here