Fair trade and "quality seals" against child labour

The label "Free from child labour" does not guarantee working children an improvement in their situation. On the contrary – for many of them, living and working conditions even deteriorate as a result. A blanket ban will not help. In contrast, alternatives developed and advocated by the children themselves can have a very positive effect within the framework of Fair trade.

Fair trade "free from child labour"?

Fair trade is about paying producers in the producing countries a higher and more reliable price than the world market price. In addition, certain labour, environmental and social standards should be met in the production process. The Fair Trade movement, which emerged at the end of the 1960s, initially sold its products, which bore various seals of approval, exclusively in so-called "Third World shops". In the meantime, these products have long since found their way into supermarkets and, more recently, into discounters.

Most of the seals of approval guarantee customers that the products have been manufactured without child labour. Where codes of conduct refer to child labour, they usually demand its prohibition. So-called sourcing guidelines prohibit the subcontractors of multinationals from employing children. More detailed explanations on how this is to be controlled are usually missing, as well as information on the whereabouts of the dismissed children.

Quality seal initiatives

Some quality label initiatives were launched exclusively on the subject of child labour. They aim to remove children from the production process, but now also consider "socio-political flanking measures" to be necessary. They claim to create alternatives for the dismissed children or even to combat the causes of child labour. The quality label itself, however, is limited to labelling products which are "free of child labour".

The best known example in this country is the Rugmark seal for carpets "produced without child labour". Companies applying for a licence to use it must ensure that they employ only adults. If they are caught cheating, they lose their licence. The companies also pay a periodic or one-off licence fee which is paid into a fund to be used to improve the situation of the dismissed children or to combat the causes of child labour. It is also foreseen that consumers will pay a premium for the sealed products.

There are currently seven export-oriented quality label initiatives that focus exclusively on the issue of child labour: Rugmark, Care & Fair, Kaleen, STEP, Baden, Reebok and GoodWeave. They concentrate on two economic sectors and a few countries. The seals are awarded to hand-knotted carpets from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Morocco and Egypt and to footballs from Pakistan and China. Some of the Fair Trade movement's seals for products such as coffee, bananas, chocolate, tea, orange juice or flowers also attempt to dissuade children from the production process and label the products they trade as "free of illegal child labour". Their real focus, however, is on improving the income conditions of small farmers and development education in the Global North.

Also worth mentioning are the cross-industry and internationally oriented seals of approval, which are intended to certify that companies comply with certain labour standards, including provisions on dealing with child labour (SA 8000, Workers Rights Consortium, Fair Labor Association). Brazil also has two domestic market-oriented quality label initiatives (Pro-Child, Abrinq), which focus on the abolition of child labour.

Impact on children

It is not uncommon for children to be pushed out of the production cycle because of social clauses, codes of conduct and quality label initiatives, without considering what the work means for them and their families and what happens to them afterwards.

Studies in the Indian "carpet belt", for example, have shown that the widespread success stories of the quality label initiatives are to be assessed critically. One study (Ashraf 2001, p. 308) states that "the weakest point of the anti-child-labour campaigns lies with the alternatives for children". Unfortunately, the child labourers who were rescued and sent back to their villages did not have any possible alternatives to improve their situation. Follow-up surveys revealed that most of them returned to weaving, either to their old jobs or to new looms installed in their villages. Another study also concludes that within the area of influence of the Rugmark label, hardly any children had taken up an education after their dismissal, whereas most had entered new jobs that were even worse than before (Betz 2001, p. 318). According to Betz (ibid.), the Rugmark Foundation's own findings on the whereabouts of former carpet-weaving children are treated as classified information.

Insofar as the quality label initiatives have their criteria monitored by inspectors, they focus exclusively on the dismissal of children. As long as children do not have better alternatives available to them in sufficient quantities, the only purpose of the inspections seems to be to reassure buyers in the consumer countries.

Education and social projects as an alternative?

The educational and social projects maintained by the quality label initiatives are intended above all to contribute to improving the completely inadequate educational provision in the regions and thus to counteract the causes of child labour. The parents of the carpet-weaving children did not only give as a reason for their children's work that they were dependent on their income. They also doubted the benefits of school attendance. The parents argued that lessons were constantly being cancelled, the teaching content was useless and their children were also physically chastised by teachers. In addition, the establishment of schools does not solve the families' or children's income problem. Compensation for the children's lost wages or the creation of alternative sources of income are either not provided for in the quality label initiatives or are only half-heartedly sought.

Other social services sponsored by quality label initiatives are also far from meeting the needs created by the redundancies or the quality required. Sharma et al. (2000, p. 70) criticise, for example, that the upper age limit for staying at the Rugmark sponsored rehabilitation centre Balashraya is 14 years and that the management could not provide any information about the subsequent whereabouts of the children. Betz (2001, p. 319) reports that the villagers were angry because Rugmark did not launch its own social projects for a long time and the villagers felt deprived of an indispensable source of income without compensation. Only one STEP-funded health station and the medical facilities supported by Care & Fair are certified as being of good quality. The discrepancy between the consequences of the dismissal for the children and their families and the actual alternatives is so great that in most cases the situation of the working children must be seen as deteriorating rather than improving.

The children and their families are not involved in the initiatives

The most serious omission of the quality label initiatives must be considered to be that they did not involve the carpet-weaving children and their families, nor the knotting chair owners and exporters in their planning and measures. None of the groups of people mentioned above voluntarily joined a quality label initiative. This was one of the main reasons why at the First World Meeting of Working Children, which took place in Kundapur (India) at the end of 1996, the delegates unanimously and vehemently spoke out against the boycott of products made by children.

The problems in the Indian "carpet belt" are no exception. The danger of children being pushed into the next worse alternative is all the greater, the more effectively the work of children is combated by means of social clauses. It is questionable to what extent quality labels are suitable in principle to contribute to improving the situation of working children. Since quality labels can only draw attention to a problem without providing detailed information, they are in danger of oversimplifying the problem addressed.

Pressure from consumers

For fair trade it is delicate to engage in the perspective of "improving working conditions for children". After all, "produced without child labour" is regarded in many Western countries as the most important advertising argument for ethical consumption and thus also for fair trade. The Austrian Fairtrade seal, for example, guarantees consumers in an effective advertising way "excellent quality, controlled origin, near-natural, resource-saving production and the exclusion of child labour". Media-effective campaigns such as the Global March Against Child Labour did the rest.

Where people are interested in manufacturing conditions at all, the absence of child labour ranks at the top of the rating scale. This is not only proven by studies conducted by TransFair, but also, for example, by the scientific survey of 750 consumers in Vienna by the "Österreichische Wirtschaftsuniversität Handel und Marketing". 32 per cent only want to have products in whose production no children were involved. On the other hand, only 10 percent think it is important that farmers are fairly remunerated. In Germany, with its significantly lower share of fair trade products compared to Austria, this share might even be lower.

A paradoxal situation for working children

The absence of child labour is therefore an important advertising argument - and the Rugmark seal was probably quite successful with this argument, at least in the initial phase. The fact that children have to work obviously weighs on our conscience. But the movements of working children and young people are fighting against such a perspective. They advocate better working conditions and wages, they demand participation and equal treatment for working children. In doing so, they represent traditional trade union positions, among others. So in principle, they are on the line of fair trade: it too wants to improve the living and working conditions of poor producers. At the same time, the Global North and the Global South are seeking to establish a relationship based on partnership. From the perspective of working children, a paradoxal situation arises: of all people, consumers who care about global justice reject products that secure the livelihoods of children.

The social clauses, codes of conduct and quality label initiatives remain rooted in a way of thinking which sees working children only as victims to be rescued and "rehabilitated", but not as equal partners. Children should be involved in the process of improving their living conditions and their negotiating power should be strengthened instead of removing them from the work and production process.

In Italy, a fair importing company (Equomercato) added products made by working children to its range for the first time: Greeting cards, bags, picture frames, tin toys, jewellery, soap, etc. These goods are produced by children in the Global South on their own initiative in cooperatives. Some world shops initially reacted indignantly and listed all products of the company. But after an intensive discussion, many Italian World Shops now offer products that have been produced under fair conditions for children. In 2010, Litte Hands spun off from Equomercato as an independent project to support the solidarity-based economies of the movements of working children and youth. Since then it has specialised exclusively in the distribution of products made by children and youth under dignified working conditions.

The Christliche Initiative Romero has bought greeting cards made by children from Peru several times and distributed them in Germany. Otherwise, the issue is being approached rather defensively. After all, fair trade companies and the German umbrella organisation Dachverband der nationalen Fairtrade Organisationen now admit that the children of their producers are involved in the harvest - and they clearly distinguish this from "exploitative child labour". But unlike in Italy, there are still no further products from children's cooperatives to be bought in this country.

Updated: 14.12.2020