Support, not sanctions, key to combating child labour

Standards and certification are important but policing alone can never solve the issue, as conscious consumers we have a responsibility too, writes Caroline Hickson

An estimated 98 million boys and girls work in child labour in agriculture.

Child labour is a hidden problem perpetuated by poverty, especially in the remote rural communities where we work.

Standards and certification are important but policing alone can never solve the issue. As conscious consumers we do have the responsibility to use our purchasing power for good.

But we have to be careful how we use this power. An approach that only relies on policing or boycotts can only go so far in preventing child labour in the poorest farming communities, and in some cases can exacerbate the problem.

Instead, we need to recognise farmers as equal partners in tackling this issue, if we are to improve the situation for millions of children around the world.

Last year I accompanied Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s senior advisor on Social Compliance and Development, on a visit to a group of sugar farmers in Paraguay. Our purpose: to pilot an approach that would support farmers to tackle child labour in their communities. Paraguayan sugar is high-risk for child labour, yet the first challenge was getting the problem out into the open.

“No, we don’t have this problem on any of our farms,” said one farmer after another. “In the cities you see the working children. Here [in the countryside] there is a culture of hiding. No one wants to admit the problem,” explained Ruth Ortega, a project worker from Abrazo, a local child labour NGO.

The potential loss of sales from companies pulling out would be devastating to these peoples’ livelihoods. Fear of this can drive the problem into even deeper hiding, increasing the risk for the most vulnerable children.

But the farmers got excited when Anita presented the concept of a community-based child labour monitoring and remediation programme.

We support farming communities to set up local committees that include youth members. These identify areas of risk to children, monitor the situation of children in the community and develop ways to improve children’s wellbeing.

Supported by expert child rights partners, these address instances of child labour where they are found. After the initial set-up, the programme is fully owned and run by the community.

These farmers are not alone. Interest is spreading globally with more cooperatives asking us to come and talk to them about this proactive approach. It's a long-term task but Fairtrade farmers and their community members are leading the way to ensure agricultural areas are safe and offer an attractive future for young people.

About the writer

Caroline Hickson is director of communications and strategic partnerships for Fairtrade International, a global organisation working to secure a better deal for farmers and workers.

Photo credit:Pavel Svoboda/ Shutterstock