Child labour, health hazards and other child rights violations are common in many countries and throughout global supply chains. It is estimated that 160 million children around the world – 70% of them in the agricultural sector – are engaged in work that threatens their health and safety or interrupts schooling.
Child Labour - Around the globe, child labour is widely documented in the production of gold (in 24 countries, as per US Department of Labour in October 2022), sugar (18), coffee (17), cotton (15), rice (12) and cocoa (7).
In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where most of the world’s cocoa is produced, children constitute a third of the total workforce in cocoa production. It is estimated that approximately 1.54 million children – or 45% of the children living in cocoa growing areas – are engaged in child labour.
Children engaged in hazardous work or forced labour have been especially noted in sugar and West African cocoa production. This includes the use of sharp tools, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and carrying of heavy loads. Child labour risks are also present in the production of tea, bananas, wine grapes and textiles, as well as various vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and oils.
Information about child labour at the processing stage is scarcer, but underage workers have been found in pineapple processing factories in Thailand.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the risk of child labour, due to the closing of schools and the increased economic pressures on many families.
Health - Exposure to toxic substances represents another risk for many children, especially in the vicinity of gold mines and conventional banana plantations. Aerial spraying of pesticides on banana plantations can affect children living up to 1.5 kilometres away, hindering child and fetal development. Children living near to or working at artisanal gold mines are often exposed to toxic mercury, which is used for gold processing. This can cause brain damage and other serious conditions.
Safety – In India, child trafficking on tea plantations and forced child marriage among sugar cane workers are other high-risk areas. Mothers’ overtime work and long commutes can jeopardise the safety of children. Especially mothers working on flower, fruit and vegetable estates report that childcare facilities are inadequate and toddlers may spend long days alone with 10-year-old siblings. Carbon credit projects may require the relocation of entire communities, which disrupts children’s schooling for months or years.
Root Causes – Child rights violations have many root causes, but discrimination and poverty are the most prevalent. Given the low incomes and wages at farms, mines and textile factories, many households struggle to provide adequate nutrition and schooling for their children. When coffee prices fall, for example, adults in farming households often seek off-farm wage labour to make up for low income from coffee, which leaves children and adolescents to take on farm responsibilities at home. Further, many rural areas lack basic services such as schools, day cares and health facilities..
Fairtrade works in supply chains where the risk of child labour is high, which is precisely where our work is most needed. The Fairtrade approach to child labour mitigation and remediation is human rights-based and inclusive, and targets direct root causes.
We support efforts by farmer organisations, plantations and other organisations using hired labour1 to utilise a community-centred approach to identify, mitigate, prevent and remediate abuse and exploitation of children. We also seek to facilitate dialogue among producer organisations, governments, traders and civil society organisations, so that solutions generated at the local level can be scaled up.
When child labour is found, Fairtrade acts to protect2 the affected person(s), working with national agencies, NGOs and the producer organisation towards the remediation and prevention of further cases. If child labour or related non-compliance with Fairtrade Standards is found via an audit, the independent Fairtrade auditor, FLOCERT, also agrees on corrective actions and checks their implementation.
1: On this page, we use “plantations” to refer to organisations using hired labour.
2: Fairtrade’s Child Labour and Forced Labour Guidelines.
Fairtrade utilises a variety of tools to mitigate3 the risks of child labour and other child rights violations at farmer organisations and plantations.
The Fairtrade Standards are one of our tools and includes several child rights requirements:
Find the full set of child rights-related requirements in the Fairtrade Standards at the bottom of this page.
Standards alone are insufficient to eradicate child labour. That is why Fairtrade goes further to tackle the root causes of child labour in several ways, including:
At the export, import and manufacturing stages, Fairtrade’s child labour interventions are laid out in the Fairtrade Trader Standard, which requires companies to be aware of national labour laws and fundamental ILO Conventions, including those on minimum age for work and the worst forms of child labour, and show no evidence of violations. This applies in Fairtrade certified supply chains regardless of whether the local county has ratified these ILO Conventions or not. Compliance with these requirements is checked in audits, if there are any prior indications of non-compliance.
In addition, traders must comply with Fairtrade’s pricing and Premium requirements, which support farmer organisations and plantations to invest in socio-economic development addressing poverty, the primary root cause of child rights violations.
3: Mitigating measures reduce the likelihood of an adverse impact (UNGP Interpretive Guide, p. 12)
4: Mainlevel Consulting, 2022. Assessing the Impact of Fairtrade on Poverty Reduction and Economic Resilience through Rural Development. Page 44.
5: Mainlevel Consulting, 2022. Assessing the Impact of Fairtrade. Pages 44 & 47.
6: Knoeßlsdorfer, Sellare, Matin Qaim, 2021. Effects of Fairtrade on farm household food security and living standards: Insights from Côte d’Ivoire; Becchetti, Conzo, Gianfreda, 2012. Market access, organic farming and productivity: the effects of Fair Trade affiliation on Thai farmer producer groups; Meemken, Spielman, Qaim, 2017. Trading off nutrition and education?
No organisation can provide a 100% guarantee that a product is free from child labour. Child labour is rooted in poverty, inequality and exploitation, which need to be addressed in collaboration by companies, governments, civil society and citizens.
In this context, the fact that child labour can and does also occur in Fairtrade certified supply chains is not unexpected. When child labour is identified, Fairtrade acts to protect the child and to enable remediation7 by the responsible actors.
When a case of child labour is identified or alleged in the production or processing of certified commodities, our response is guided by the Protection Policies and Protection Committees of Fairtrade International and the relevant Fairtrade Producer Networks in Africa, Asia or Latin America.
The regional Protection Committees include human rights experts with an in-depth understanding of local realities.
We support the producer organisation in contacting national agencies and NGOs, in an effort to enable safe remediation. Furthermore, we support the organisation to strengthen its own policies and processes, monitor the prolonged safety of the victim, and take measures to prevent further cases of child labour.
If FLOCERT, the Fairtrade auditing body, identifies child labour during an audit, it requires corrective measures. These typically include safe withdrawal of the child from harmful labour and a policy and programme to mitigate the risk of further cases. If the corrective measures are not fulfilled, the organisation is decertified8. Certified organisations choose, which type of a monitoring and response system they use. Recently Fairtrade commissioned an independent evaluation of the common systems.
However, Fairtrade cannot guarantee that each and every child labour case is fully remediated. Full remediation includes rehabilitation and compensation for the victim, which can require support for the family and the child until she/he turns 18. Full remediation requires contributions from all of the duty bearers, including local public authorities and each of the companies who have caused or contributed to the case.
Fairtrade supports farmer organisations’ monitoring and remediation measures through training, advice, the Fairtrade Premium and tailor-made programmes. For example, Fairtrade has worked with sugar cane farmers in Belize to build a system to identify and withdraw children engaged in unacceptable work, and to pioneer the Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation (YICBMR) programme on child labour. This can be partially funded from Fairtrade Premium and often entails a partnership with child rights NGOs and other local actors. More on this system and how it compares to internal control systems can be found here.
Fairtrade has a global level grievance mechanism – the allegations mechanism housed at FLOCERT – which is under reform to strengthen its alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In addition, Fairtrade certified plantations are required to have a grievance mechanism in place. Grievance mechanisms are not yet required of farmer cooperatives or traders, but these organisations do need to address and document any human rights and environmental complaints related to Fairtrade Standards.
7: Remediation refers to the process of counteracting or fixing a human rights violation through measures that can include apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, financial or non-financial compensation, and punitive sanctions, as well as preventing the repetition or further cases of harm (UNGP Interpretive Guide, p. 12).
8: Details on the certification process can be found at FLOCERT’s website.