17 March, 2017

Fairtrade Farmers Spur Nationwide Changes on Child Labor in Belize

Child Labor Belize
by Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development, Fairtrade International

Belize’s Ministry of Labor makes strong steps toward addressing child labor nationwide. Advocacy efforts by sugar cane farmers were influential in the move.

In 2015, a report by the United States Department of Labor found that Belize had made minimal advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, particularly in the agricultural sector, and that important gaps in the country’s legal framework still remained.

Even before the release of that report, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association (BSCFA) had recognized the seriousness of addressing child labor in their sector and took action. Leonardo Cano, then the association’s Chairman announced their determination “to be best in class when it comes to rooting out child labor in the sugar industry.”

With the support of Fairtrade International and its Latin America and Caribbean producer network (CLAC), BSCFA led and funded an ambitious program to safely identify and withdraw children who were already engaged in unacceptable work and prevent child labor in Belize’s sugar cane industry.  BSCFA has been running Fairtrade International’s Youth-Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation system to tackle child labor since 2015.

This work led to an advocacy effort and public awareness campaign that has resulted in changes on a national level. Last month, Belize’s Ministry of Labor announced the activation of the Labor Advisory Board, Tripartite Body, National Child Labor Committee, and Interest-Based Bargaining Stakeholders. The establishment of these bodies represents an important step towards safely identifying cases and remediating child labor in the country

Though Belize has not defined what kind of work can be undertaken at the minimum age of work (14 years), and an approved hazardous list of child labor has not been finalized as yet, these new bodies represent a strong commitment to identifying and remediating cases of child labor on a national level.

A call to action

When independent auditors for Fairtrade found evidence of underage children working during school hours on two Fairtrade sugar cane farms in Belize, they took swift action, suspending BSCFA’s certification and issuing corrective action to put things right before the organization could resume trading on Fairtrade terms. This led to BSCFA shifting their focus to addressing difficult issues among their members. (Read the full story here.)

However, BSCFA also recognized that it was impossible to effectively tackle an issue as far-reaching and complex as child labor without the active intervention and support of industry, civil society and more importantly, governmental agencies.

When BSCFA began its intervention program in 2015, it also issued a strong call to action for the government of Belize to step up the fight against child labor in the country. BSCFA met with various government departments, including the National Committee of Families and Children, to share their findings with them, action steps they would take and long-term plans. BSCFA along with Fairtrade also hosted the first multi-stakeholder discussion on child labor in the sugar cane sector. Two years of lobbying and engaging with the government have now borne results.

"We are pleased that despite the suspension for non-compliances on child labor in 2014, and the difficult process of addressing our challenges, we are now a key driver confronting this issue in the sugar industry," said Adalid Wicab, Chairman, BSCFA Committee of Management. "We have knocked on the doors of different government ministries and brought together industry stakeholders to discuss this complex matter that impacts the livelihoods of our farmers and their families, including children and youth."

"This announcement from the government of Belize is reaffirming; we now understand that BSCFA is not alone in tackling this challenge. We remain committed to continue working shoulder-to-shoulder with our government to make meaningful advances towards a better future for our sugar industry, including the current and future generations of children and youth. A brighter and more prosperous generation will now be possible with Belize addressing the key obstacles to ensure sustainable development, human security and increased well-being for all."

Partnering for Progress

Fairtrade has been working in Belize since 2008.  There are currently three Fairtrade sugar producer organizations in the country, producing more than 1,300,000 tons of sugar cane, and one association of cacao farmers.

"Belize continues in its efforts to adopt a rights-based approach to addressing exploitation and abuse of children and youth. This recent announcement by the Ministry of Labor shows that child rights and child protection are fundamental to the fight against child labor," said Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development.

"We should keep in mind that the fight against child labor is also a fight against violence against girls and boys.  At Fairtrade, we are committed to continuing to work with Fairtrade producer organizations, industry, civil society and governments to ensure the well-being of children and youth in the countries where we operate. We look forward to working with the newly established bodies in Belize to support their fight against child labor across the country.  A new generation of sugar cane production is possible, one in which children and youth are at the forefront not only supporting the identification and response to exploitative labor, but also recommending what needs to change for their generation to choose sugar cane production and processing as a sustainable and decent livelihood."

Fairtrade International works closely with the Latin American producer network, CLAC, which endorses and is an active part of Fairtrade’s commitment towards children’s rights and children’s well-being.  The CLAC provides on-the-ground support to producer organizations across the different countries and supply chains for the fulfilment of social compliance standards.

"CLAC strongly believes that children’s rights and wellbeing are a shared responsibility between families, communities, producer organizations, companies and governmental actors and therefore we welcome all multi-stakeholder partnerships that aim to joint efforts towards the eradication of child labor," said Marike de Peña, President of the CLAC. The achievements in Belize are very good examples to be promoted at continental level. The lessons learned will enable us to implement similar programs at scale and contribute to a better future for children and youth in rural areas."

In collaboration with its partners, Fairtrade is actively committed to using a rights-based approach to fighting the root causes of child labor and proactively preventing the abuse and exploitation of children and other vulnerable populations in the producer organizations with which it works. Read more about Fairtrade’s guidelines on child labor and forced labor.

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Anita Sheth, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor on Social Compliance and Development, will give the keynote address at South Texas College’s Human Trafficking Conference, April 5-6. Click here for more information or to register for the event.

A version of this story was originally published March 9, 2017 by Fairtrade International

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