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World Children’s Day: Investing in our future means investing in our children

by Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor of Social Compliance and Development, Fairtrade International

Every year, November 20th marks World Children’s Day –  a day set aside to reimagine a better future for every child with the universal goal of improving child’s well-being and security worldwide. It is also an opportunity for reflection. Are we doing enough? Fairtrade International’s Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor of Social Compliance and Development, marks the occasion by considering the role of our standards-based certification system and looks ahead to what has to change, and change quickly, if we are going to build a fairer, safer and more sustainable future for the next generation.

Current events have many of us reflecting on our priorities and values. In my role at Fairtrade International, I spend much of my time speaking and working with groups to promote and secure the rights of vulnerable groups. It’s clear, that when we talk about the future, we cannot continue to do so without giving children and young people a central place at the table and talking to and hearing from them: especially when we talk about the future of food.    

It’s not always clear, to those outside the system, what role Fairtrade plays in protecting vulnerable groups in the producer setting: especially when it comes to child labour. Voluntary, standards-based certification systems, simply put, confirm compliance to indicators that have been established though public consultation processes involving key stakeholders. Fairtrade relies on FLOCERT, an independent and ISO-accredited organization, to audit producer organizations and traders against our standards. However, as we consistently reinforce in our communications, when a producer organization passes certification, it does not guarantee an absence of child labour. It simply means that at the time of the audit, no non-conformities to the Fairtrade Standards were found.

When non-compliances are discovered via an audit, certification can be suspended, subject to corrective action. If corrective action is not satisfactorily taken, the certified organization will become decertified and will be prohibited from selling or trading on Fairtrade terms. Over the years, FLOCERT has suspended or decertified multiple organizations for the use of child labour. In fact, in some countries, FLOCERT was the first to identify the unconditional worst forms of child labour in production of key products.

So, given there is no guarantee, can voluntary, standards-based certification truly play a role in protecting children and young people from exploitation, abuse, and neglect? Can children and youth truly have a voice in their own well-being and protection?    

My answer to both questions is: yes.

In Fairtrade’s 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: setting robust standards, strengthening audits, leading the push for living incomes, training producer organizations, and developing targeted programmes with partner organizations.

Two key components of Fairtrade’s model directly influence the ability of producer communities in addressing child labour. First, the requirement for small farmers to organize in democratic cooperatives creates an accelerator environment for collectively moving large numbers of producers towards compliance, especially where government labour inspections are low or local laws are weak or non-existent. Second, the Fairtrade Premium, paid on top of the Fairtrade Minimum Price, can be invested in the development of community projects, such as building schools and day care centres or providing bicycles so children can more easily travel to attend distant schools – all of which have been shown to play a role in reducing the prevalence of child labour. Other producer organizations choose to establish systems, in partnership with NGOs and supply chain actors, to find, fix and prevent labour exploitation. 

In Belize, India, Philippines, Fiji, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, and Kenya, producer organizations have used portions of their Fairtrade Premium to begin implementation of Fairtrade’s Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) Systems on child labour. The voices of children and youth are central to the success of the YICBMR system. The establishment of the monitoring and response system includes setting up a child labour committee, hiring and training of youth monitors – young men and women from target communities – and implementation of a child labour and child protection policy. However, because of the costs to implement, fully scaling up programmes like YICBMR is proving difficult.

And so it is clear: if we are ever going to make the world a better place for and with children and young people, we have to shift our paradigms to recognize the value of investing in and enabling the voices of youth in determining their own future.

Fairtrade is doing just that in our strategy going forward. We have committed to aligning our policies and processes with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) and scaling up involvement of and positive impacts for vulnerable groups, especially children and youth. 

Read Fairtrade’s commitment to human rights (pdf)

We believe the key to tackling the root causes of child labour, poverty, discrimination and other human rights abuses is a ground-up approach where Fairtrade-certified producers, communities, and youth, in particular, take the lead on developing goals and strategies through dialogue and engagement with each other. 

With the voices of youth in the lead, we believe more lobbying has to be done for supply chain actors to contribute resources to detect and respond to child labour in joint custody chains, including creation of decent youth employment and business opportunities. Collaboratively, we must also include youth in designing programs to create inclusive practices, across all aspects of running profitable farming operations or businesses, to make agriculture viable, attractive and safe for the next generation.

But before we are able to do any of this responsibly, we must invest now in building awareness and creating a safe, protective environment. Working children and young people in producer countries need to learn about child labour regulation, safe remediation and relevant schooling, through producer training and programmes like YICBMR. Children and youth must not be seen as objects of child labour monitoring and response systems, but as stakeholders driving change that is relevant and meaningful to them.  

Shared accountability to invest in the future must mean that the children and young people, especially those already engaged in producing the food we consume, have a key role to play in making trade fair for this generation and into the next. 

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