Stepping up to stamp out child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla sector

As a fine mist slowly lifted over the coastal city of Sambava, Madagascar, a small group of women and men gathered to listen, learn and share experiences on preventing the occurrence of child labor in the country’s vanilla sector. These vanilla sector professionals were attending the first of a series of trainings designed to equip them with the knowledge, communication skills, and other tools needed to engage their colleagues and farming communities on child labor.

Berthine, a bright and energetic young team player works for one of Madagascar’s leading vanilla exporting companies. She, like the other attendees, was chosen to head up anti-child labor advocacy efforts at her company. The trainings will enable Berthine to educate farming communities about the detrimental effects of child labor, help them identify the pressures that can lead to it, and brainstorm sustainability solutions to alleviate those pressures.

The trainings, initiated by the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), were designed for vanilla exporters, as these companies have close personal connections with vanilla farming communities. Importantly these individuals have presence among their peers and are able to influence beyond their organizational boundaries.

The Seen and Unseen Costs of Child Labor

Understanding and alleviating the pressures that can lead farming families to turn to child labor is crucial to preventing the practice from taking hold in Madagascar’s vanilla sector. The work that Berthine and her fellow trainees have committed to will compliment efforts already underway by SVI member companies who support farming communities and are already active in reducing the circumstances that may lead to child labor.

Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla. Remarkably, it is grown on thousands of smallholder farms scattered across its main vanilla-growing region, the SAVA. Like family farms worldwide, Malagasy children learn the ins and outs of agricultural practices by helping their parents in certain parts of the process: harvesting vanilla beans from plants or moving green beans into the sun during the curing process, for instance. However, there is an important difference between farm and household chores, which teach and instruct, and labor that puts a child’s health, well-being and educational opportunities at risk.

Children’s participation in work such as helping around the home, assisting in a family business, or earning pocket money is generally regarded as positive. This kind of work can provide children with valuable skills and experience that they can take with them into adulthood.

Child labor, on the other hand, is work that is harmful to a child’s physical and mental development and deprives them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. Child laborers are often unable to fully attend school or are forced to combine school with excessively long and heavy workloads. These strains damage a child’s prospects for upward economic and social mobility and ultimately causes slower economic growth and development in emerging economies like Madagascar, according to the ILO and leading NGOs.

Helping Vanilla Communities Build Economic Resilience

As part of its core mission, SVI and its member companies are dedicated to supporting farming communities to build economic resilience. Some member companies offer training in agricultural best practices, crop and income diversification, and financial management. Others offer professional development opportunities for teachers, equip schools, and work with communities to establish youth programs. These measure help farming families develop financial security and a sense of hope for the future – two psychological conditions that are crucial to reducing the pressures that cause vulnerable families to turn to child labor.

“In recent years, local communities, the government and the vanilla sector have been responding positively and are willing to openly discuss and look for solutions to mitigate and address child labor,” said SVI’s Jan Gilhuis. “These efforts, taken together, will help ensure that child labor never becomes prevalent in the Malagasy vanilla sector,” he said.

Long-Term Efforts to Secure the “Rights of the Child”

Securing the rights of the child long-term and eliminating child labor in any country or economic sector are goals that require consistent enforcement, deliberate action, and sustained commitment by many actors. For this reason, SVI and its member companies focus their work throughout the value chain and continue to support regional authorities in their efforts to strengthen child labor monitoring and remediation systems, so that if instances of child labor are identified, they are dealt with appropriately.

In an effort to build accountability and encourage long-term progress, SVI collaborated with some of Madagascar’s largest exporting companies – the very ones whose staff attended the recent training – to draft the Vanilla Operator Code of Conduct. This voluntary set of vanilla sector standards are aimed at ensuring that exporters adopt policies and procedures that mitigate the use of child labor throughout the entire vanilla value chain – from farmers (producers) to buyers, to the exporters themselves.

By committing to the code, exporting companies can now leverage their influence in the sector and set forward a powerful, progressive and positive agenda that fully respects the rights of the child. “The engagement of companies in the development of the Code of Conduct – which is now officially required by governmental regulation – was an important first step,” said Gilhuis. “This initial effort to ensure no child labor is involved in vanilla production needs to continue and be further institutionalized in family homes, in communities, in private sector organizations and with the full support of national and regional governmental levels in the years to come.”

On the last day of the training, Berthine talked passionately about what she planned to do next. To succeed, and have that success last, Berthine recognized that her enthusiasm and good intentions would not be enough. She said she plans to reach out to grassroots organizations that work in farming communities throughout the region and enlist their help in the cause. “Local organizations bring an essential asset to this effort,” she said. “And that is, community trust.”