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“I won’t stop fighting”: Child Labour Activist Visits St Andrews

There are currently 160 million children between the ages of five and 17 involved in child labour worldwide. 79 million of those children are engaged in work that directly endangers their health and environment.

After briefly shaking our heads, expressing quiet sighs of dismay and commenting that ‘something really must be done’, most of us move on after hearing such staggering statistics. Mr Fernando Morales de la Cruz –– a human rights activist, journalist, and social entrepreneur, who spoke last Saturday at a TEDx event in St Andrews ––– however, is an exception. For the past seven years, he has been fighting to eradicate child labour and exploitation in global supply chains.

FaceTiming me from the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Fernando cuts a casual figure, standing by a bar in a t-shirt. Yet there is nothing casual about the claims he makes, nor the manner in which he makes them. “Child labour and exploitation in the supply chains of developed nations and corporations is the single most irrefutable indicator of injustice and indifference in the world today”, he tells me, “I won’t stop fighting until it is eradicated”.

The picture is grim. A joint report between UNICEF found that since 2016, the percentage of children engaged in labour has remained the same, with the absolute number rising by eight million, and those engaged in directly hazardous work increasing by six-and-a-half-million.

The use of child labour and other exploitative measures in the sweatshop production of ‘fast-fashion’ is one area where it is well-documented. Technology companies have also come under fire for enabling child labour regimes. Apple, for instance, has been criticised for the use of child labour in the factories of its Chinese suppliers, and in the mining of tin contained in iPhones, in Indonesia. In the agricultural sector, the situation is particularly bad: 70 per cent of those involved in child labour worldwide are engaged in the industry.

Guiltily putting down the coffee I’m drinking whilst listening to Fernando speak, I wonder how much of this situation can be blamed on capitalism (the bane of most global issues, as my university education would tell). Child labour is predominant in developing countries whose main export markets are in primary sectors –– mining and agriculture, for example. It is a widely accepted economic phenomenon that the dependency on such products helps explain poverty and economic stagnation in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. So is it capitalism and free-market economics at the heart of child labour and exploitation?

I’m met with a defiant “no” from Fernando. Referring to the producers of agricultural goods in developing countries, he tells me: “These farmers are capitalists, too! They own a piece of land, buy the seeds, take a risk, and wait 6 months for the harvest. I don’t want to insult the little entrepreneur. I would like them all to flourish.”

The root problem, Fernando explains, is exploitative business models driven by corporate greed. One particular business model Fernando takes aim at is that of ‘FairTrade’, a popular organisation that purports to improve the living standards of farmers and workers in developing countries. It certifies products that it claims meets certain social, economic and environmental criteria –– which include paying producers a fair price for their products and committing some cash to a communal community fund.

“FairTrade is not aimed at reducing poverty, but at increasing profits for corporations”, Fernando says. “You cannot call a product fair or ethical if you are paying the producer less than it costs to produce –– that is slavery”.

Fernando speaks with a compelling passion, but I’m keen to do some digging myself.

The evidence is shocking. A 2018 report by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, published after a three year study in Ghana and India, found that ethical auditing and certification schemes –– including FairTrade –– were largely ineffective in rooting out forced labour and exploitation in tea and cocoa supply chains. Not only that, but employers were using such schemes to reduce business costs and thus increase profits.

On certified tea plantations, 36 per cent of workers were found to have suffered from unfair deductions made from their wages. The report found that some cocoa farmers were being forced into unpaid labour for as long as three months, whilst 69 per cent of workers on certified tea plantations were being manipulated into taking on high-interest loans.

The research also indicates that these exploitative practices were often accompanied by verbal and physical abuse, threats, coercion and sexual violence. Alas, so much for the claim on FairTrade’s website that they seek to establish “a world in which trade is based on fairness so that producers earn secure and sustainable livelihoods”.

FairTrade also claims to facilitate social development projects in these communities –– perhaps it is doing better on this front? Fernando is not optimistic. “For every picture they show you of a school they’ve built, there are 99 others they haven’t”, he says.

Again, the evidence I find seems to support this: certified plantations fare as badly as, or worse than, non-certified plantations against several indicators of service provision. Almost half of tea workers on certified plantations do not have access to potable water and 30 percent of them do not have access to a toilet. Moreover, 17 percent more workers on certified farms do not have reliable electricity than those on non-certified farms. It is telling that 95 per cent of cocoa workers did not even know whether or not the farm they were working on was certified.

For Fernando, the sustainability and future of a community boils down to a single indicator: the number of girls who graduate from secondary school. “If that number is going down, there is zero future for the community. It will remain poor”, he says.

“In some FairTrade communities, just five per cent of girls finish secondary school”, he adds. “There are others where a girl has a higher chance of dying before the age of one than graduating from secondary school”.

For Fernando, certification schemes such as FairTrade are committing crimes. They are deceiving consumers with marketing which, he says, is akin to propaganda. In paying higher prices, consumers are led to believe they are benefitting producers. Yet calculations from FairTrade’s own figures demonstrate that just 1.53 per cent of the retail price reaches developing countries as extra payment from FairTrade membership. The cost of operating FairTrade organisations in developed nations is 75-100 per cent of this sum.

It is at this point that Fernando takes aim at St Andrews. St Andrews has been a FairTrade Town since 2005, and the University was given the FairTrade University Award last summer. In associating with these schemes, he argues, St Andrews and the University is indirectly supporting child labour and exploitation and perpetuating deceitful marketing claims. “There’s no excuse”, he tells me, “This is a town full of very clever people. All you need is Google to find the evidence against FairTrade. I find it difficult to believe no one here has access to a computer.”

Fernando spoke at the university last Saturday. He told community members that he wants St Andrews to cut ties with FairTrade. “This is a matter of asking ourselves what we believe in. Unless St Andrews is willing to support exploitation, it needs to admit its mistake and leave the scheme.”

“We don’t need FairTrade”, he says. “My request is simple: all I am asking is for countries to obey the law.”

It is now 75 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which obliged all member states to respect children’s rights, and yet, Fernando exclaims: “the EU is the main financial beneficiary of child labour in coffee, cocoa, and many other products.”

The United States is no less blameworthy. Fernando points to Section 307 of the 1930 Tariff Act, which prohibits the import of any product that was mined, produced or manufactured by forced labour, including forced or indentured child labour. The act is blatantly ignored, he argues.

Fernando says that eradicating labour exploitation and paying producers a fair price is essential to eliminating child labour. “We need to fire the children”, he says. “To do that we need to start paying the adults a fair price so that they can feed their children, and so that their children can go to school.”

Despite the grim picture and political indifference, Fernando has hope. Hope due in part to his distinctive childhood in Guatemala and beginnings into activism. “My father was a journalist and politician”, says. “He taught me to speak truth to power.”

Perhaps Fernando believes in change so strongly because of his own transformation. As a political consultant working globally, Fernando admits he has had a privileged life. “For 52 years”, he says “I was completely indifferent”.

That changed when he became ill with a mysterious infection affecting the nerve between his ear and his brain. “I had such bad vertigo I couldn’t walk. I had to crawl”, he says. During those months of sickness, Fernando realised he had to give his life some real meaning. “I had to wake up”, he says.

In fact, Fernando says, we all need to wake up. Indifference is no longer an excuse, and social media enables us to make our voices heard by those in power. “Never think that you are too small to change the world”, he says. “The question is whether you have the discipline, and are committed to making a difference.”

Photo: Ximena Borrazas

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