How co-ops can tackle child labour in agriculture

Around 160 million children are engaged in child labour globally

Child labour continues to affect millions of children worldwide, particularly those whose parents work in agriculture.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that around 160 million children are engaged in child labour globally, 75% of them in agriculture, in sectors like farming, fishing, aquaculture, forestry, and livestock.

Poverty and limited access to quality education are among the main causes of child labour in agriculture – but with the support of the ILO and Fairtrade, some co-operatives are trying to make a difference.

In Costa Rica, the International Cooperative Alliance’s regional office in the Americas has supported a local co-operative to develop a project aimed at tackling child labour.

Tarrazu is a coffee region in Costa Rica, with a local population of 4,000. Between November and February, Tarrazu welcomes around 25,000 migrant workers, most of them from Nicaragua or Panama.

CoopeTarrazu was founded in 1960 by 228 small coffee farmers and today it has over 4,600 members. In 2018 the co-operative started the Casa de la Alegría (‘House of Happiness’) project, which aims to eradicate child labour, forced labour and child abuse in the region.

Casa de la Alegría, a project of CoopeTarrazu (Photo: CoopeTarrazu)

It targets children under the age of 12 who arrive from abroad with their parents, who come for the harvest. While the parents are picking the coffee cherries, the children stay at Casas de la Alegría childcare centres, where they are fed, looked after and take part in educational activities. Initially, Casa de la Alegría housed 45 children – today it looks after 420 and has plans to expand.

“The support of international institutions like the ILO, the FAO, or ICA Americas will be critical to replicate this project in other parts of the world,” says Carlos Leiton, director of CoopeTarrazu.

Similarly, in Ghana, the Asunafo Cocoa farmers’ co-operative is working with international partners to tackle child labour. The co-operative has established and trained a Community Child Protection Committee that works across 67 communities and has set up a children’s parliament to enable young people to discuss issues that affect them.

Asunafo Cocoa also runs its own child labour monitoring programme with the support of the International Cocoa Initiative, a Geneva-based non-profit working to end child labour in cocoa production in West Africa. As part of this, Asunafo Cocoa is monitoring the presence of child labour with the support of community facilitators, provides remediation initiatives and monitors their progress via defined monitoring tools. For example, to address the fact that some children are engaged in economic activities during school hours, the co-op runs various programmes to improve farmers’ income. It has trained 690 women in soap making and 530 in bread making and runs an education support scheme for 954 students.

In collaboration with Mondelez International, Asunafo Cocoa has also trained 50 young people to acquire vocational skills to become masons, carpenters, seamstresses or hairdressers.

Some children walk long distances to get to their school. To address this the co-op has helped to build 26 new school buildings and donated 70,000 exercise books to primary schools.

Awareness raising is also crucially important in tackling child labour – and to do so, Asunafo Cocoa has teamed up with local radio stations to continue to increase awareness about child labour.

During a webinar organised by in International Co-operative Alliance in collaboration with the ILO, Asunafo manager Patrick Owusu shared the co-op’s best practices and made several recommendations. He suggested strengthening co-operative systems and international certifications to help with the identification, monitoring and remediation of child labour cases.

During the same webinar, the importance of certifications was reiterated by Mario Juan Gonzalez, president of La Riojana wine co-operative in Argentina. He explained how his co-operative’s work to stop child labour had been strengthened by gaining a Fairtrade certification in 2006. La Riojana’s initiatives included developing a social responsibility programme to give access to secondary and tertiary education, as well as university and postgraduate courses, to members, children of members and children of employees. The co-operative also provides scholarships and has built a National Agrotechnical College so that children of members and employees can receive pre-university education.

Fairtrade International continues to play an important role in addressing child labour, says Lilian Maina from Fairtrade Africa. During the webinar, she explained how Fairtrade’s small producer organisation standard requirements stipulate that no children under 15 years or under the minimum age defined by local law can be employed. 

The standards also mention that no dangerous or exploitative work of those under 18 years of age which might affect their schooling, health and safety, can take place, she added.

Asunafo Cocoa farmers’ co-operative is one of the co-operatives involved in Fairtrade International’s RECOVER Africa project, which brings together partners in six countries that implement a youth-inclusive, community-based monitoring and remediation system. The methodology requires young people to be part of the monitoring and responses to child labour identification and remediation. Fairtrade also runs a Dignity for All project in Ghana, through which it promotes the rights of children in cocoa-growing areas by collaborating with teachers.

The ILO also runs several initiatives aimed at helping to end child labour, including a training package on the role of co-operatives in the elimination of child labour. The materials aim to help participants identify child labour and devise practical actions they can take in their organisations. The package includes a guide for field trainers and another for the management, staff and members of agricultural co-operatives, all available on the ILO’s website.

Another ILO project, ACCEL Africa, seeks to influence existing legislative frameworks and test evidence-based solutions. The project covers six countries and five supply chains and sees the ILO help co-operative organisations set up Child Labour Monitoring Systems and review their capacity building programmes to see whether child labour issues were integrated into these.

“The ILO is fully committed to working with the co-operative movement to end child labour. We expect that apex organisations can mainstream and upscale the work we do writing those projects to be much more institutionalised,” said Philippe Vanhuynegem, chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (FUNDAMENTALS) Branch.

In terms of what more the co-operative movement could do, Mr Vanhuynegem called on the co-ops to join Alliance 8.7, a campaign to promote Target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to end modern slavery, trafficking, and child labour.

While co-operatives can play an important role in tackling child labour, working with international partners and using existing monitoring tools can help the sector achieve progress sooner.