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Making progress against child labour during a pandemic: the farmers' perspective

Three months after the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect everyday life around the world, we set about to rapidly assess its impact on farmers, families, and children.

Our findings revealed four critical areas of action supporting learning from home during school closures, boosting food security in rural areas, personal protection equipment and hygiene materials for farming communities, and finally building the financial resiliency of farmers and their families.

Over the past year and a half, ECLT- supported programmes have targeted these four additional areas by:

  • providing over 150 schools with hygiene materials in Malawi and Tanzania,
  • data packages for over 190 students in Guatemala to access online learning,
  • new farming technologies and irrigation systems for over 5,100 farmers to grow fruit and veg in Mozambique,
  • PPE for over 2,000 community members in Indonesia
  • financial support for over 16,200 people during the pandemic.

To see how far we have come, and whether farmers are still facing these issues a year on, we spoke to Mercedes Vázquez from ITGA to hear from the point of view of farmers‘ associations and here is what she shared.

1. What are some of the key challenges faced by farmers during the covid 19 pandemic? How have things evolved over the last year?

Along with the primary health related concerns that Covid-19 created for tobacco growers around the world, farmers shared with us that there was a wide range of disruptive factors that affected the normal conduct of business including economic pressures which affect them and their families.

For example, in 2020, due to travel and transport restrictions many markets suffered disruptions as farmers struggled to get their produce to market. Several experienced delays in starting of the 2020 season, while in others it was suspended or interrupted for a period of time. In addition, in many countries including Zimbabwe, growers were prohibited from participating during the sales process, where individual growers were represented by associations.

The situation is now slowly getting back to normal. Many associations are doing their best to assist vaccinations and ensure business gets back on track.

ITGA's initial focus was on spreading awareness about the virus. Throughout 2020, we monitored the evolution of the virus, provided up-to-date information to tobacco farmers around the world and assisted in market-specific approaches. We also partnered with the ECLT Foundation, developing materials on WHO-approved messaging about hygiene measures and sharing them around the globe.

In 2021, we are adapting to a new reality as consultations with farmers’ and growers’ associations are now being conducted online, ITGA has been focusing a lot of energy and resources in support of this.

2. How does this affect child labour?

Child labour is not something that happens in isolation.

The problem intensifies or eases in line with the dynamics of the tobacco growing supply chain and beyond. All issues affecting it - from low incomes and pressures on famers such as weather conditions affecting the crop and lower yields for example, ultimately impact the very concerning issue of child labour. Having in mind the challenges intrinsically attached to the dynamics of the market, in a case of unexpected disruption, like the global pandemic, we are faced with additional problems and added impact on child labour.

3. What solutions exist to support farmers?

According to our members in different regions, the sector came together to overcome this difficult situation.

Logistics were rearranged in a way that farmers could operate in safe environments so the marketing season, mostly in Africa and Asia, was conducted properly. This happened with a lot of limitations but thanks the collaboration between different links it was made possible.

4. What role do farmers associations play in supporting farmers during difficult times?

Farmers’ associations are a great asset for growers in their respective countries. We must not forget that some of them have been operating for more than 80 years. These are solid links, built on trust, that are important for the sector. This means that in a pandemic driven situation, growers’ associations played a unique role and felt committed and responsible for farmers' safety, providing the support needed. ITGA upheld this role by continued coordination with its growers’ associations in different regions.

5. How do farmers' associations contribute to the fight against child labour?

Growers' associations have a central role to play in the fight against child labour.

They are placed best to tackle the issue with a holistic approach, having the experience in knowing the urgent problems of the sector. They are already playing a key role in this fight, but unfortunately are very underestimated by many. ITGA considers its associations in different regions the perfect platforms to reach out to farmers, either to work with them or to provide support when needed.

6. Looking ahead, what do you think could be done better? What do we need to take into account for better and more sustainability?

The whole supply chain should be involved. We have to learn and analyze. We need to appreciate what was done right in the past, but also what went wrong. We need to get close to the challenges faced by growers and do a lot of research. Education is the key, so in my understanding things would have to start there. Educating not only the children, but their parents and the larger community. We should not forget the ultimate cause of child labour practices- poverty. By supporting growers' to improve their income we could tackle many issues at once.

Looking ahead

As we reflect over the past year, although many challenges have been overcome and the world is very slowly bouncing back, one thing is for sure now is not the time to drop the ball. Many farmers, families and children are still suffering the consequences of the pandemic, and the economic fall-out is likely to have a disastrous impact on child labour.

Looking ahead, we need to ensure that farming communities receive the support that they require to earn a living to support their families, and get children back into education. If we do not do so, millions more children will become vulnerable to child labour and other child protection concerns.