In West Africa where many cocoa farmers are still earning less than $1.50 a day, Fairtrade International says two million children are in child labour.
Child labour, according to the group, is driven by complex inter-related factors of poverty, exploitation and discrimination.
Fairtrade believes the best way to eliminate extreme poverty is to pay farmers and workers a fair price for their crops.
‘’We work to achieve decent incomes – for example by setting living income and living wage benchmarks, promoting collective bargaining agreements, and protecting farmers from market fluctuations via the Fairtrade Minimum Price. And the Fairtrade Standards prohibit all forms of violence and discrimination’’, the group said.
But, the United Nations and child rights organisations are calling the COVID-19 pandemic a disaster for millions of children.
School closures, coupled with limits on migrant labour, mean that boys and girls are more vulnerable to child labour. If parents become infected with the virus, children and youth, particularly girls, may end up assuming greater responsibilities for their family’s survival.
On a longer-term, it is being feared that the economic downturn will drive even more people into poverty and, as a likely result, more children into child labour.
Proposals have already been made to adjust the legal requirements for young workers (age 16 and above) to cope with labour shortages in the coffee sector.
Other sectors and countries will probably follow, reversing hard-won gains. Weaker laws and stretched government budgets will result in more child labour, especially in the rural and agricultural sectors.
Fairtrade says it is responding to these challenges.
Its producer networks are working closely with producer organisations to inform them of the link between child labour and COVID-19 and to heighten their awareness of the risks.
Fairtrade’s COVID-19 guidance document for producers includes advice on protecting both children and vulnerable adults.
In West Africa, Fairtrade certified cooperatives are making use of radio and local community information centres to sensitize communities to the increased risk of child labour and what constitutes hazardous work.
In Sri Lanka and the Philippines, a children’s drawing competition provided two cooperatives with the opportunity to engage with farming families and remind them of COVID-19 risks.
The group is also providing vital funding for its producer organisations to invest in the safety and livelihoods of producers and their families, for example in temporary payment of wages for suspended workers, or emergency healthcare – reducing the risk of children having to work to support their families.
Producer organisations can also use the Fairtrade Premium more flexibly for immediate COVID-19 related needs. Food packages have been particularly vital for families where a school lunch was their child’s one meal of the day.
Looking forward, the new Fairtrade Producer Resilience Fund is intended to support longer-term economic interventions, including tailored programmes to address human rights risks in value chains.
Several Fairtrade producer organisations have taken steps to tackle child labour by implementing Fairtrade’s Youth Inclusive Monitoring and Remediation system, which has proven to be effective in empowering communities to identify cases of child labour and in heightening awareness of the risks.
But the current lack of support from governments or expert agencies means that many of these producer organisations now feel abandoned and powerless if they do find a suspected child labour case. They are urgently seeking solutions and calling upon their governments to support them.
Fairtrade is providing virtual guidance and contacting locally-based child rights NGOs for support to producers wherever possible.
But Fairtrade cannot solve this alone. We cannot replace the role of governments in responding to and remediating cases of child labour, especially the worst forms of child labour.
Fairtrade calls on governments, companies and international bodies to invest more resources and provide safe ways to protect children trapped in child labour.
If the Sustainable Development Goal of ending child labour by 2025 is not to turn into a pipedream, we must all commit to working together to protect children and rebuilding a more sustainable, fair and inclusive economy in the wake of COVID-19. Millions of children and youth rely on us to act decisively now.