10 Dec 2021

A new study looks at systems to find, fix and prevent child labour. Here’s why it matters.

“In order to better protect children from harmful work, it is critical that we understand the systems that farmers and workers are using to prevent, detect and remediate child labour," explains Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development at Fairtrade.

Coffee seedling young farmer Indonesia 870
Koptan Gayo Megah Berseri coffee cooperative in Indonesia has a plant nursery and training programme for young adult farmers.
Rosa Panggabean / Fairtrade / Fairpicture

160 million. According to the United Nations, that’s the estimated number of children trapped in child labour around the world. It’s both an astonishing and distressing number – one that indicates an 8.4 million increase over the last four years. And one that incriminates the COVID-19 pandemic as a leading impediment in the fight against child labour, having limited children’s access to education, health services, food and protection.

While 2021 marks the global community’s observance of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, it also represents a catalysing moment in which stakeholders must take stock of their efforts in eradicating child labour and understand what more can be done… and what can be done better.

“In order to better protect children from harmful work, it is critical that we understand the systems that farmers and workers are using to prevent, detect and remediate child labour,” explains Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development at Fairtrade.

“That’s why at Fairtrade we commissioned a study to look at two different child labour monitoring and remediation systems and learn how producers assess them on a range of factors in order to provide insights that will benefit all stakeholders, from farmers and governments to companies and NGOs,” Sheth continues. “Only in that way can we truly build a better understanding of how these stakeholders can successfully play their critical role in eradicating child labour in agriculture and throughout supply chains.”

The two systems evaluated were the Internal Control System, and the Fairtrade Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system for child labour.

Internal Control Systems monitor compliance with specific control points related to standards and laws, and are focused on all farm activities. This system involves commercial partners when needed.

The Fairtrade Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) system, on the other hand, covers areas of farm production as well as the broader community. It actively engages Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade farms, including young people themselves, and brings in government entities, companies, and civil society to share information and take action.

More than 180 producers and 122 community members, including children, from four countries – India, Ghana, Belize and the Dominican Republic – were interviewed or participated in focus group discussions to share their views. Different stakeholders from within the Fairtrade system were also interviewed as participants in different aspects of Fairtrade’s certification process and support to producers.

The study found that both systems are effective for their intended scope: the Internal Control System for monitoring compliance on farms, and the Fairtrade Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system for addressing child labour risks and cases in a deeper way and engaging communities and governments.

The YICBMR system was considered more effective in many aspects, including finding and removing children from harmful labour, as well as engaging communities, governments and young people themselves. The Internal Control System was perceived as slightly more effective with regard to trader engagement, and as more cost-efficient in the short term. However, if the YICBMR system becomes integrated within national action plans for the elimination of child labour and into community structures, it can result in deeper impact and longer-term financial sustainability.

As Fairtrade pauses to observe International Human Rights Day, we spoke with Anita Sheth to explain the study’s findings and share additional background on Fairtrade’s ongoing fight against child labour.

Fairtrade International: Why do these study findings matter?

Anita Sheth: First, farmers and cooperatives need to make decisions about what system to use to find, fix and prevent child labour on farms. Some cooperatives choose to join a system used by a buyer, or their government’s system. For this study we wanted to assess the two most prevalent systems used by Fairtrade certified producers, namely the Internal Control System and the Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system, and to better understand cooperatives’ reasons for their selections and lessons learned about implementation.

In my view, an approach that includes the community as well as government entities responsible for child protection will be able to have greater impact than one that focuses more narrowly on member farms. This was confirmed by the recommendations of a study by NORC at the University of Chicago published last year.

However, such an approach takes time and costs more initially.

What we have learned through this study is that the Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system should be better explained at the start, so farmers and cooperatives understand that the last phase of this system is expected to be scaled into Government National Action Plans for Child Labour Elimination.

This approach is based on the understanding that farmers should not be the only ones responsible for the costs of a child labour monitoring and remediation systems. All actors in the supply chain should contribute to the expenses, and governments must play their part in enforcing their child labour laws, and setting up guidelines for remediation and regulatory standards to ensure child protection and safeguarding, especially for children identified in the worst forms of child labour. These should be mandatory if we are serious about preventing child labour long term, and more importantly, ensuring that children withdrawn from child labour in the short term are not withdrawn from one area, only to return at a later time or be pushed elsewhere, sometimes into even more harmful work.

Producer organizations should have detailed information about the available child labour monitoring and remediation systems, and the support they can expect from governments and other stakeholders in undertaking this work. Different systems have strengths and weaknesses. Producers should make decisions based on their particular realities within their specific contexts.

What are the key takeaways from the study for Fairtrade’s work more broadly in tackling child labour, in your opinion?

All of us working on this issue within Fairtrade believe that the burden for paying for these systems should not fall on farmers alone, when everyone in the supply chain has a responsibility and role to play in addressing child labour and other forms of exploitation. The study reinforces that cost is a major factor for producer organizations in deciding what system to use.

To better understand financing implications, we want to explore how we can collect data going forward on actual costs of these two systems.

We can also improve how systems are implemented. For instance, I agree with the researchers’ recommendation to ensure that all actors – whether the community, commercial partners, governments, or NGOs – understand their roles at the start of implementing the Fairtrade Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system. The expectation in the last phase is that the system is scaled into Government National Action Plans for Child Labour Elimination.

Fairtrade will use the study findings to evaluate our support to producer organizations on the implementation of effective child labour and remediation systems. We are also currently in a consultation process on our Fairtrade Standard for Cocoa, so study findings will also be reflected in considering new requirements on these systems.

Stepping back to look at more than just monitoring and remediation systems, what is Fairtrade’s approach to tackling child labour?

We first need to emphasize that child labour is the product of systemic inequalities and unfair trading conditions, especially endemic poverty. As long as vulnerable families are unable to achieve a decent living, ending child labour will remain difficult. Better incomes, quality schooling, addressing discrimination, exploitation and abuse, awareness of child rights, legal interventions and social changes are all necessary factors to combat child labour.

Through our own experiences, we’ve learned that how the issue of child labour is addressed is critical. Fairtrade takes a rights-based and community-centred approach because it greatly increases the likelihood that communities will take ownership of the issue, rather than have harmful practices be driven elsewhere. We take actions on multiple fronts, from setting strict standards, to strengthening audits, to training producer organizations and supporting the implementation of monitoring and remediation systems, and developing targeted programmes with other partners.

We work to address poverty as one of the main root causes through our Fairtrade Minimum Prices and Premium, which improve incomes for farmers. These Fairtrade initiatives are key because they provide producers with financial gains they can use to reinvest in their communities and families, building schools, sending their children on to higher education, and generally safeguarding children from the scourge of child labour itself.

The study describes how the Fairtrade Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation system engages young people themselves in mapping risks and being leaders in addressing child labour in their communities. Can you say more about how that works?

The youth-inclusive approach involves young people in a wide range of activities and decision-making, ranging from being key members of Child Labour Committees, data collectors and assessors, and community facilitators. More often than not, children and young people are objects of data collection on child labour. We wanted to change this and provide spaces where young people are regarded as subjects driving the fight against child labour. The young people involved in supporting the implementation of Youth-Inclusive Community-Based Monitoring and Remediation systems have themselves had early engagement in farming, undertaking light work or even child labour. At first, producer organizations were reluctant to hire them. But today all the producer organizations are reporting the tremendous work they have been doing to build interest in the communities against child labour. Some have even hired these young people as full time staff in their organizations.

This is a promising outcome, especially since a focus of our new global strategy is on building opportunities for young people. We want to encourage investment in decent youth employment, skills development and business opportunities for young people, with their involvement and leadership. It’s all part of protecting children’s rights, first to be safe, get a quality education and eventually to be able to earn a decent and sustainable livelihood.

Read the full study.