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How Fairtrade is Tackling Child Labour

An Interview with Fairtrade International’s Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development.

It’s the silent scourge of our globalized trade system: roughly 152 million children trapped in child labour, many of them working inside the global food chain. As the international community comes together to mark the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the question remains more pertinent than ever: how can we eliminate child labour once and for all?

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) which tracks child labour around the world, almost half of child labour happens in Africa (72 million children), followed by Asia and the Pacific (62 million). Against that backdrop, 70 per cent of children in child labour work in agriculture and nearly half of them work in occupations or situations considered hazardous for their health and lives.

Despite the alarming statistics, the overall trend has been positive. Over the past 20 years, incidences of child labour have decreased by 38 per cent with the number of total children in child labour reducing by nearly 100 million. But, says Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor for Social Compliance and Development at Fairtrade International, there is still much work to be done.

“When it comes to eradicating child labour, what we need to emphasize is that we’re all in it together,”  Sheth explains. “Organizations like Fairtrade, local and international activists, journalists, researchers, producers, consumers – we all have our roles to play and they’re complementary.” 

And now, amid the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, gains in the fight against child labour are once again under threat. School closures, coupled with limits on migrant labour, mean that boys and girls are more vulnerable. If parents become infected with the virus, children and youth, particularly girls, may end up assuming greater responsibilities for their family’s survival.

So how can we ensure that in this Year for the Elimination of Child Labor the hard fought gains of the past two decades are not reversed? We spoke with Anita Sheth on the Fairtrade’s objectives for the ambitious year and how it is waging its ongoing battle against child labour. 

Fairtrade International: Thank you, Anita, for taking the time to speak with us. First off, what is child labour? Many people have difficulty framing the concept and it seems like there is a delicate distinction between child labour and child work. How does Fairtrade define the two?

Anita Sheth: Child labour refers to work that is harmful to a child’s health and wellbeing, and/or interferes with their education, leisure and development. The ILO, which sets the standards and norms for defining what is and is not child labour, has identified three specific categories to define the practice: age, exposure to hazards, and what they call “unconditional worst forms” of child labour.

As regards age, the ILO places the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 15 years. The organization does acknowledge that in some countries mandatory schooling runs until the age of 16, at which point the minimum age is corrected to that threshold for that country. In addition, the ILO also accepts that children 13 and above may perform light work but this work must not interfere whatsoever with their schooling.

When looking for child labour, we’re also evaluating exposure to hazards which are, by their nature, harmful to the health, safety, or morals of children. Countries are asked to prepare their own guidelines for what can be defined as hazardous work, but the ILO also offers generic definitions as a starting point.

Finally, children may not be involved in so-called “unconditional worst forms” of child labour which include all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, child prostitution and pornography, and participation in illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs.

So, this is by and large what constitutes child labour in the eyes of the United Nations. However, we must also be mindful that that in many countries around the world, it is legally acceptable for children to participate in light work as long as it doesn’t interfere with their educations. In many agricultural societies, for instance, children might help their parents and families on farms, doing tasks that range from clearing the fields to harvesting. And this is the tricky part: to the untrained eye, sometimes what appears to be child labour is actually child work because it depends on a number of factors, including when the work is done, the type of work being undertaken and the conditions under which it is performed

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 developing targeted programmes with other partners.

We also 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.

Have there been instances of child labour found at Fairtrade-certified producers? How has Fairtrade responded?

Yes, there have been several cases in which our certified producers have used, or were alleged to have used, child labour. Make no mistake – this is something we take very seriously. The allegations themselves can arise following an audit conducted by our certifying entity FLOCERT or, in other cases, they’re made by local activists or journalists. That said, if child labour is alleged or identified on a Fairtrade-certified farm, we have immediate and comprehensive actions that fall into place.

For one, child labour allegations will instantly trigger Fairtrade International’s Protection Policy for Children and Vulnerable Adults. This policy requires us to safely act to protect the impacted persons involved in worst forms of child labour, to support the producers with prevention measures, and to ensure Fairtrade-relevant standards are being followed.   

If forced labour or the worst forms of child labour are identified, we then file a report to the national protection agency, if applicable, or to in-country rights-based organizations for further action, including safe remediation. Our Protection Policy and Procedures for Children and Vulnerable Adults calls for response and action to ensure that relevant and applicable national laws are complied with and that Fairtrade Standards are upheld. 

For their part, Fairtrade Standards on Child Labour and Child Protection require that remediation actions must ensure prolonged safety to the child, and the creation of prevention projects to ensure the withdrawn child is not replaced by others. Furthermore, if there is a non-conformity found to this aspect of our standards, we support the producer organization in strengthening their programmes and systems to detect and prevent child labour.

Ultimately, failure to have adequate systems in place, including continuous monitoring and response, leads to suspension and then decertification if the producer organization does not address the problem.

2021 marks the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Organizations, including Fairtrade, governments, and private companies have submitted pledges to the ILO committing to increasing efforts in fighting child labour. What is Fairtrade planning for this important year?

Fairtrade has joined the ILO and the international community in pledging to ending child labour. And we have, in fact, committed to accelerating our signature Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) efforts which focus on training, capacity building and strengthening and involving  working children, young people, producer organisations, producer households and their wider community in producer countries in identifying and responding to child labour risks.  YICBMR is all about putting children, young people and adults at the heart of tackling the root causes of child labour in the local community. It is an area-based system that covers Fairtrade producer organization member farms as well as non-member farms. Farmers and community members, including women, youth and children, equally engage together to identify potential and/or actual risks of children’s well-being and make recommendations on how to respond. Producer organizations learn who to engage, including which departments of the government, and what preventive projects should be implemented to address root causes for child labour Children and adults from the producer communities identify where children feel safe and unsafe, and design projects to enhance children’s well-being and development.

At the end of the day, Fairtrade’s YICBMR is an inclusive area based approach which understands that we need the entire community’s total investment in ending child labour and respecting the rights of children.  .  

As of today, YICBMR has been implemented in various commodities and in 14 countries. And currently there are YICBMR efforts underway in Latin America, Africa, and in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Can you tell me about the youth that have been involved in supporting the operations of the YICBMR system at producer levels? 

The YICBMR approach involves youth 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. Fairtrade wanted to change this and provide spaces where young people are regarded as subjects driving the fight against child labour.  The youth involved in supporting the implementation of YICBMR 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 youth as full time staff in their organizations.

It is estimated that while child labour has decreased by 38% in the last decade, 152 million children are still in child labour. What would you like to see more of in the global fight to ending child labour?

I think many in Europe and in the United States view child labour as a problem of the past – something relegated to the pages of a Dickens novel. But child labour is here and the fight against it is real and must be based on children’s rights, especially their rights to protection and to be heard.

When it comes to eradicating child labour, what we need to emphasize is that we’re all in it together: organizations like Fairtrade, local and international activists, journalists, researchers, producers, consumers – we all have our roles to play and they’re complementary. 

In a world impacted by COVID-19, we must double our efforts in working together to find, fix and prevent child labour, while at the same time increasing opportunities for youth between the ages of 16 to 24 for decent employment, skills development and business opportunities.  And at Fairtrade we’re committed to doing our part.

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