Fairtrade and Child Labour

More than 151 million children, some as young as five, are engaged in harmful child labour instead of getting an education or playing. That's 151 million reasons to stop the practice.

Do you know who picked the coffee beans that went into your flat white this morning? What about the cotton in the shirt you’re wearing? Here’s an even tougher question: Do you know the age of the person harvesting the cocoa beans that went into your afternoon chocolate pick-me-up? 

Around the world there are an estimated 151 million victims of child labour, aged 5-17, and the majority of them work in agriculture, including cocoa, coffee and cotton plantations. Half those children are under the age of 11, and almost 73 million of them work in hazardous conditions. 

When children as young as five are in child labour, it affects everything else in their life, from their development to their education. And when children don’t have access to an education, they lose out on the chance at a better future. That’s why Fairtrade, and many other members of the global community, are working hard to eradicate this injustice.  

But lots of children aged under 17 have part-time jobs, don’t they?

Confronting child labour is a challenging issue. In countries such as Australia and New Zealand the image of a child working is someone with a newspaper round before school, a teenager behind the counter of a fast food restaurant or possibly someone helping their mum or dad do jobs on the family farm before they get stuck into their homework. In Australia, for example, children can generally work from the age of 15 (without a special permit or under specific exceptions, and it varies by state), and getting a part-time job is usually encouraged – especially by parents! But in both countries those jobs come with controls about what children can and can’t do, the hours they can work and whether it can interfere with their schooling. There is also support in place for employees – children or otherwise – who aren’t being paid properly. Stringent safety laws exist to protect workers on the job, and children who are employed are not allowed to do dangerous work. 

There’s a huge difference between children in age-appropriate controlled employment that helps them develop skills and self-esteem, and the damaging, brutal reality faced by child labourers. The experiences are so different that the International Labour Organizaton even counts the 66 million children in employment separately to the child labour category. 

If it’s not a teenager asking people if they’d like fries, who are child labourers and what sort of work do they do?

Child labour is predominantly used in agriculture, in fact that’s where 71 percent of child labour – or 108 million children – is found. Just under 12 percent is found in industrial settings such as factories, and 17 percent provide services, such as cleaning or domestic help. The problem is that this is the child labour we know about. Although 58 million child labourers are boys and 42 million girls, girls are more likely at every age group to spend more hours a week in domestic labour, and they are also more likely to work both domestically and in another job. 

It’s incredibly difficult to get numbers of domestic labourers or children in sex work because they’re hidden from the public eye. These roles are also more likely to be filled by girls, potentially in countries where girls are less visible anyway or seen as having fewer rights than boys or men. Girls may also not be valued as highly by their communities or families, so fewer concerns are raised about their well-being or whether their educational needs are being met. 

The 38 million children aged between 15 and 17 years are also included in the figures as child labourers,not because they are too young to work, but because the work they are doing is too dangerous. Young workers have up to a 40 percent higher rate of non-fatal occupational injuries than workers over the age of 25. 

How bad are we talking for the worst forms of child labour?

The worst forms of child labour can involve the sale or trafficking of children, debt bondage, forced or compulsory labour – including into armed forces as child soldiers, or into prostitution – using a child for the production or trafficking of drugs or any other work with a significant chance of harming a child, whether physically or psychologically.

Hazardous work is also no job for children, whether underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces; with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or moving heavy loads; or where children are exposed to hazardous substances or processes, toxins or even high temperatures or noise levels. 

But can’t families stop their children working?

No parent would choose to see their child sacrificing the most basic education for work, or working in slave-like conditions, but poverty removes choices very fast. Part of the complexity of child labour is that more than two-thirds of it happens on family farms or in a family context, and families living in poverty need to have working children to survive. It’s no surprise that in low-income (<$US1,045 GNI per capita) countries one in five children work – but the problem is not limited to those places, with another 84 million children from middle-income ($US1046-$US12,735) countries also in child labour. In upper-income (>$US12,736) countries the number plummets to one in 100 (although that’s still unacceptable).   

There’s also a strong causal link between conflict, natural disasters and displacement, and child labour, and according to UNICEF, 535 million children – or a quarter of children worldwide – live in countries affected by conflict or disaster. Children also make up more than half the 65 million people who have been displaced by war. Unrest, disasters and displacement make children vulnerable to a range of exploitation, not just labour. Sometimes children find themselves on their own, or even if they are still with family members or carers the household may have lost its income, home or possessions, and support networks. Even short-term crises that are soon resolved can force children out of school just for long enough to stop them going back. 

Is there any good news? 

Yes! Eradicating child labour was one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the combined efforts of the global community made a lot of progress. There were about 94 million fewer children in child labour in 2016 than there were in 2000. And the number of children doing hazardous work has fallen by more than half, from 170 million to 72.5 million. The Sustainable Development Goals, announced in 2015 to replace the MDGs, include the ambitious commitment to end child labour in all its forms by 2025. But that won’t happen through policy-making alone, every single person is going to have to commit to a world without child labour to bring about SDG target 8.7 by demanding transparent supply chains and corporate responsibility for the production of their goods. 

What is Fairtrade doing to help end child labour?

Tackling child labour is one of the core principles of Fairtrade, and it’s an issue that has to be addressed by any producer organization and its members before they can become Fairtrade certified. 

Small producer organizations and their members must:

●     Not employ children under the age of 15 or under the age of local laws, whichever is higher;

●     Make all efforts to work out the ages of children working with their parents, and that those children are only working after school or during holidays, are not doing heavy or dangerous labour, are well supervised, and are not working long hours;

●     Encourage children to attend school or work with local authorities to build a school or provide transport to a school if one isn’t available in the area; 

●     Ensure children under the age of 18 do not do dangerous work, or work that is likely to affect their health, safety or school attendance; 

●     Support any former child labourers to make sure they are not vulnerable to worse forms of labour or exploitation if they can no longer be employed due to Fairtrade requirements. 

Making sure farmers and producers receive a fair price for their produce and their labour is one of the first steps to helping alleviate poverty and the need for child labour. When a family becomes financially stable it is better placed to ensure children attend school and can have bright futures of their own. Another way Fairtrade can help is through the Fairtrade Premium – an additional amount that is paid to cooperatives on top of the Fairtrade Minimum Price, thatcooperatives can spend as they choose to benefit their members or the community. In some places the Premium has been used as a source of funding for schools or school transport. 

You said everyone needs to commit to make the end of child labour a reality, but what can I do?

You can use your purchasing power to help eradicate child labour by choosing to buy products - such as coffeechocolate and tea - with the Fairtrade Mark. Look for the Fairtrade logo when you shop to make sure you are supporting producers and supply chains that have rejected child labour, and help us work towards a child-labour free world by 2025.