BELIZE CITY, Mon. Aug 3, 2015–The Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) has recently received the official 2015 report on the annual audit conducted by the UK-based Fairtrade program—a report which cites progress by the BSCFA on the child labor front, as teenagers who had been toiling as cane cutters rather than attending school have largely been removed from the fields, after an extensive public education campaign by the association.
BSCFA chairman, Ezequiel Cansino, told Amandala that the BSCFA failed last year on non-compliance with child labor, but they have since managed to mitigate that problem, after the launch of a pilot project to address the issue.
He said that paid work by teens, usually ages 13 and 14, especially work which involved intensive labor in the hot sun, was frowned upon by Fairtrade, and parents were advised that at most, these young teens could be allowed to work an hour or two on the weekends and only under the supervision of their parents.
Cansino said that allowing children to labor in the cane fields has been a “family tradition” which affords them an opportunity “to earn more money;” however, under the BSCFA’s pilot project, they have been explaining to farmers the negative effects that child labor, and especially hard work, has on the development of children.
The association also made progress with managing its finances, Cansino said. Whereas last year, the association took a hit due to the diversion of $78,000, allegedly by 5 employees—a matter which Cansino says is before the courts—they have had no complaints this year about the mismanagement of funds, the chairman told us.
However, Fairtrade did warn the association that it could face de-certification if actions taken by cañeros, mandating the distribution of Fairtrade premium receipts directly to cañeros, is repeated.
Cansino said that although the demand was handed down by the assembly of the association, which is their maximum authority, the purpose for which those funds were disbursed, to directly pay cash to farmers rather than finance programs for the industry, represented non-compliance with the Fairtrade program. They are now required to properly document how the cane farmers benefitted from last year’s disbursement of the Fairtrade premium.
Although the BSCFA used to receive $7-8 million in premium payments, this year, it is expecting only $1.2 million.
A premium of US$60 premium is paid for each ton of sugar sold under the Fairtrade regime, as a bonus on the market price, which this year stood at 425 Euros (or in excess of BZ$900) per ton, Cansino explained.
He said that Fairtrade has been buying 65,000 tons of sugar annually for the past two years, but this year, they only bought 10,000 tons, citing slow sales on the market as well as new competitors selling sugar under the regime.
Fairtrade is also requiring the BSCFA to ensure there is a contract with the Belize Sugar Industry to cover the sale of sugar under the Fairtrade regime—another corrective measure which the 2015 official report says the association needs to make.
Fairtrade’s audit also raised further labor issues. They found that there are no first aid kits in the cane fields, where cutters may suffer injuries, although there are kits at association offices. Cansino said that the BSCFA will have to discuss with farmers how the kits can be acquired, and organize training so that each group leader in the field would know how to use them.
The fourth non-compliance issue raised in the Fairtrade report is the quality of water for field workers. Although workers customarily take their water gallons with them to work, Fairtrade expects that workers will, instead, be provided with quality drinking water on-site, to guarantee that the water that field workers drink is healthy. They are also to receive training on avoiding dehydration, since they spend a lot of time working in the field in the hot sun.
Cansino says that all-in-all, the 2015 report from Fairtrade was a good one, and their only threat of possible future de-certification would arise if farmers again demand to be paid from the Fairtrade premiums in a manner that contravenes the scope of the program.