Warning: Your Groceries May Contain Child Labour

How do Traceable Food Supply Chains help Canada and the USA tackle the challenges and growing modern slavery?

Warning: Your Groceries May Contain Child Labour

Modern slavery has percolated deep within the retail environment, but often just out of sight. What does it imply? When people become entrapped making our clothes, serving our food, picking our crops, working in factories, or working in houses as cooks, cleaners or nannies, this affects the lives and livelihoods of over 35 million people. Yet another luxury easily taken for granted in this world – our groceries on the supermarket shelves are fresh, healthy and safe – thanks to complex and evolving supply chains.

It may come as a surprise, but over $3.7 billion food products have been produced with the help of child labor in Canada alone. As per a report published by World Vision, the food products with child labor amounts to about $264 million in dubious groceries. Awfully, over eight million children are being pushed to child labor during the 2020 pandemic, reversing 20 years of progress.

How Do The Countries Tackle This Challenge?

Traceable Food Chains needs to be the first point of action. The enormous majority of agricultural goods produced through smallholder farmers are not traceable to the farm level, much less are prepared in a manner wherein information can be readily available. The industry ought to build 100% traceable delivery chains as a part of any commitment made to sustainability to prevent child labor. In many countries, agriculture still involves children above a certain age to be involved in tasks at farms that are safe and away from machinery, while it is usually after school hours or as a part of community work, hard-farm labor being forced onto them in exchange of little or no wages is unacceptable to many food brands and retailers. These tightened levels of sustainable practices around fair labor are mandatory for food retailers and grocers.

Warning: Your Groceries May Contain Child Labour

Numerous certification bodies, together with NGOs, can also do valiant paintings in the field to attempt to verify compliance with rigid standards and participating in ethical certifications like Fairtrade, Fair For Life, Rainforest Certified etc. As modern customers choose wisely, the goods on their grocery list contribute to better, ethical trading conditions helping save the interest of marginalized communities and promoting better business practices to improve the farm-to-retail ecosystem.

Certain food groups are highly vulnerable to children being involved in farming, especially if the produce requires careful rather delicate handling and if they are of high-commercial value, such as Avocados, Apples, Bananas, Dried Fruits, Pineapple, Olives, Grapefruit, Coconut Milk, Juice, Tea, Coffee, Herbs and Spices, Maple Syrup, Cereal, Cocoa and so on. These are required to be certified by local and national authorities for ethical practices involved right through sowing to harvest and perhaps, through the value chain.

Fairtrade and other certified products are gaining popularity as people are more aware, conscious and well-informed of what could have gone horribly wrong if they did not care how their strawberries were grown, who plucked them and did those children even get fairly compensated. The Fairtrade products are seeing legitimate growth for a decade now, and recently, their sales went up by 21% in 2019 and saw a revenue increase of 13% from 2018.

How Can Grocers, Retailers Be More Responsible?

Grocery stores can play a vital role in impeding child labor and exploitation. They play a pivotal role in the supply-demand chain and make a difference in how they choose their vendors and what markets they choose to support.

While the demands will always need to be fulfilled, grocery stores could be more aware of the farmers or distributors that supply the produce. Grocery store owners must also check for licenses and other permits and make surprise visits to the farms or warehouses to ensure no child is employed by the farmers.

The grocery store should also put out banners and billboards in their stores or around it to raise awareness in the consumers and the general population in the vicinity.

Grocery stores of the same city or locality must come forward to form a union and pass a resolution to boycott farmers, distributors, or any other entity that employs children under the legal age. One such example is a leading supermarket firm Kroger in the US, that has defined a clear code of conduct for all their vendors, keeping in line with International Human rights. The code strongly condones all human rights violations, including child labor. All vendors are subject to a third-party audit and there is a helpline as well to report violations.

ILO, the labor monitoring wing of the UN describes the need for a social audit to eliminate and prevent child labor from suppliers. Social auditing must be conducted periodically with follow-ups to ensure compliance. The World Vision Canada’s report on coffee laborers also shows that poor pay and demand for cheaper products lead to forced and child labor. Grocery stores must practice ethical sourcing and social audits to ensure that the product is manufactured as per the standards set forth by the UN.

A New Rule For Food Traceability

The new FSMA rule proposed by the USFDA demands strict digital traceability of the entire food supply chain from farm-to-retail to ensure food security and circumvent bacterial contaminations. The FSMA rule requires food companies that are on the food traceability list (FTL), including manufacturing, processing, packaging, and warehousing of the products to keep track of the elements associated in the entire process from farm-to-retail and establishing critical tracking events (CTEs) including child labor and equality for women farmers.

For now, as per the rule, only food companies in the FTL would have to oblige with the rule but the rule has been designed to suit the entire food industry supply chain. FDA is actively considering traceability adoption in various practices industrywide. This is primarily with the larger goals of seeing uniform food standards and food safety across the food supply chain and all the way to retail.

What Happens To Food Stores That Violate Child Labor Laws?

If a food retailer or grocer is found employing minors in violation of federal child labor laws by allowing them to operate dangerous machinery like the trash compactors and tend to bottle recycling machines, they are fined heavily to the tune of $10,000. In some cases, their licences to operate can be held up.

Although, it is better to see youth being employed in their free time so as to deter them from malpractices (street violence, drugs). The federal laws in the United States are vigilant for any exploitation under the grab of cheaper labor. Wage and Hour Division District Director Timolin Mitchell in Detroit was quoted saying, “Employing young people provides valuable work experience, but that experience must never come at the expense of their safety or education.”

Warning: Your Groceries May Contain Child Labour

Complying to rules like the young workers younger than 16 are supposed to work no more than 3 hours a day or 18 hours a week. Undoubtedly, the Child labor laws strike a balance between providing a meaningful work experience and ensuring that their work does not jeopardize their health, well-being or educational opportunities.

How Can Consumers Make Informed Decisions?

The demand side of the supply chain always outweighs the supply side. This is why businesses spend millions and millions in advertisements and PR events to influence buyer sentiment. Consumers can change the way the market functions with some basic initiatives.

We have an abundance of information available on the internet to tell us anything we need to know. Customers can start by holding the manufacturers accountable and checking how a product is made before it even hits the shelves. Many governments have started issuing a tag called “Child labor free” for major consumers. Look for this tag and dig deeper if your current favorite brand does not flaunt this.

Consumers can also influence grocery stores in their stocking decisions by demanding Child-labor free products and a boycott of companies who are involved in human rights violations. The customers could write to the food companies directly if they wanted their favorite chocolate bar to be organically grown, UTZ certified and Fair Trade, and you would be surprised the PR of the food company is bound legally to take appropriate action.

Sponsoring a child farmer, financially supporting the family of growers and choosing to use the product packaging to thank and acknowledge the farmer’s efforts are some of the things that are already beginning to see the light.

Last but not least, question everything you see. If a bottle of organic grape juice is too cheap to be true – it often is because of unethical practices. For every penny reduced for you than its competitors, the company might be not being too conscious and deploying purely commercial practices. Retailers want their customers to trust that their products on their shelves are sourced responsibly and from reputable suppliers who provide safe and fair working conditions for their workers. The growing concern for human rights is all over the news and companies that depend largely on manual labor are becoming conscious and have adopted international laws around fair trade practices and better business practices.

Many of them require their existing and new vendors/suppliers to maintain safe and fair working environments for their workers at their facilities from farm to shipment and meet all other requirements of specified Supplier Code of Conduct. Interestingly, a Zero Tolerance policy for human rights violations like child and forced labor, is a big deal for vendors to renew their contracts with large food retailers, else they can be replaced with ethical suppliers.

Warning: Your Groceries May Contain Child Labour

So, next time you get your shopping carts loaded, look for Fairtrade, Child-labor free, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certified and other ethical global standards on the packaging. Also, choose to shop local where you can be assured of the source. Make a change in demand and you can impact the supply chain.

SourceTrace's software solutions have been deployed across 32 countries and 4 continents already. We are on a mission to make agriculture and food systems more sustainable. Get in touch and we will extend our expertise and commitment to you.


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SourceTrace is a SaaS (Software As A Service) company that focuses on sustainable agriculture and empowerment of farmers.

SourceTrace's advanced technology platform DATAGREEN provides comprehensive solutions to manage all aspects of the agricultural value chain.

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