The sad truth about some of world’s most commonly traded goods—coffee, chocolate, tea, bananas, palm oil, and timber products—is that their production often involves human rights abuses. Child labor, forced labor, poor working conditions, gender inequality, and the violation of Indigenous land rights are embedded in many of these supply chains for complex reasons of history, politics, and global economics.
Yet the well-being of farmers and workers is central to the long-term sustainability of any business—not to mention the world’s food supply. For this reason, addressing human rights abuses in agriculture and forestry is a key focus of our work to make responsible business the new normal. Obviously, one nonprofit organization cannot effect the wholesale transformation of an entire sector or singlehandedly solve widespread and entrenched problems. For this reason, the Rainforest Alliance brings together producers, companies, governments, civil society organizations, and consumers to collaborate for systemic change. We work on a macro level to advance responsible business practices and government policy, and within our own certification system and sustainable development initiatives to advance human rights in the production landscapes where we work.
Here are the main human rights challenges that the Rainforest Alliance addresses through our work.
Sadly, more than 152 million children worldwide are engaged in child labor—that’s the equivalent of the combined populations of the United Kingdom and Germany. The majority of these children—71 percent—labor in the agricultural sector.
The definition of child labor includes work that is dangerous and interferes with education or general development. If a child is older than school-age (which differs from country to country), they can engage in non-hazardous work, but not for more than 40 hours per week. (It’s important to note that light, safe, age-appropriate work on a family farm or business is distinct from child labor; chores in this category are an important part of learning the family business, as long as they don’t interfere with schooling.)
"The well-being of farmers and workers is central to the long-term sustainability of any business—not to mention the world’s food supply."
Tackling this problem is urgent yet complicated. Our many years of experience have shown that an outright ban on child labor—for example, a prohibition that, if broken, leads to immediate decertification—is ineffective. In fact, such a punitive approach drives abuses underground, making them harder for auditors to detect, thereby perpetuating the problem. In response to these challenges, we shifted to an “assess-and-address” approach in our 2020 certification program. This approach focuses on prevention, engagement, improvement, and incentivizing farm owners to tackle child labor on their farms rather than hide it. Farmers and farm groups in our certification program will be required to conduct risk assessments; to implement mitigation activities for any risks they identify; and to monitor how effective these mitigation activities are. They must also identify cases of child labor and remediate them. They will have access to trainings on how to set up and implement those systems.
This assess-and-address approach aligns with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Our UTZ certification program already requires farms and farm groups with a risk of child labor to appoint a community-based liaison to prevent, monitor, and remediate child labor.
The reasons behind the enduring and thorny problem of child labor in agricultural supply chains, especially cocoa, are complex. In many countries, a lack of social protections weak rule of law set the stage; then, too, informality in employment (working without a contract and protections, which leads to lack of job security, sick pay, or holiday pay) and discrimination against marginalized groups (like women) contribute. But extreme poverty plays an enormous role, which is one reason the Rainforest Alliance has long maintained a keen focus on improving rural livelihoods. Higher incomes support the well-being of farmworkers, farmers, and their families, reducing the need to rely on child labor to make ends meet.
Certain categories of farm workers, such as migrant workers and people from historically marginalized social groups, are particularly vulnerable to forced labor. The hallmarks of forced labor include unpaid or extremely low-paid work, changes to working conditions without the worker's consent, confinement in the workplace, physical and sexual violence or threats, retention of identity papers to keep workers from leaving, and debt bondage.
As with child labor, forced labor is best tackled with an assess-and-address approach, since an outright ban punishable by immediate decertification often leads farm owners to hide incidents of forced labor instead of actively participating in remediating them. Immediate decertification can actually harm victims, leaving them with no work at all, and in some cases, nowhere to live and without resources to find other work. Unless the situation involves egregious abuse, the Rainforest Alliance has found that the more effective approach is to give the farm an opportunity to provide remedy to the victim and improve its prevention and mitigation systems.
Dangerous and poor working conditions also jeopardize the well-being of workers. Our standards include protections such as access to clean drinking water, adequate sanitation, and health care; maternity leave; and the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Agrochemicals can pose a health risk to workers, so when agrochemicals absolutely must be used (the harshest are not allowed at all, and manual or biological methods are the first line of defense in our agricultural programs), workers must receive training on how to safely handle these substances, and personal protective equipment must be worn. A 2019 study by Wageningen University compared 13 Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farms to 16 non-certified farms in Colombia. Workers at certified farms were more likely to wear all their personal protective equipment. They also found that all certified farms surveyed had a designated occupational health professional, compared to only 19 percent of the non-certified farms.
As with child labor and forced labor, poor working conditions arise from a variety of factors, but poverty is key among them. Sometimes workers can’t afford to turn down even the worst jobs; a worker may accept a job offer far away, only to find out that the payment or conditions are not as promised—but the worker is stuck, having no money for transportation to leave. On certified farms, employers must meet legal minimum wages and demonstrate progress toward paying a living wage—the amount of money a household needs to cover basic expenses, like housing and groceries, and put aside a little for emergencies (the amount varies according to the family’s specific location). The Global Living Wage Coalition, which the Rainforest Alliance co-founded and co-chairs, works to determine the living wage for workers, depending on sector and location.
That said, many farm owners have such a small margin of profit that they can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage. This is one reason the Rainforest Alliance works with companies, governments and other NGOs to increase the demand for certified crops, while simultaneously working to achieve higher incomes for farmers who make investments of time and labor to improve the sustainability of their farms. The burden of providing a living income for farmers and paying workers a living wage must be shared across the entire supply chain.
Women compose, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries––yet they are often sidelined from resources, training programs, and opportunities. In some countries, women cannot own property or participate in community and local decision-making. And on larger farms, women farmworkers often lack the right to maternity leave, childcare, and equal opportunities for advancement. Moreover, women can face gender-based violence and sexual harassment at the hands of superiors or other workers. At the same time, women also perform the vast majority of unpaid work outside of their jobs, such as childcare, cooking, and household chores.
Yet gender equality has the potential to benefit entire communities. When women farmers are given equal access to resources, education, financing, and land rights, they can increase farm yields by 20 to 30 percent. With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, improving women’s equality in the agricultural sector is critical to achieving food security. Furthermore, studies show that women are more likely to spend their income on food, clothing, education, and health-related items for their families than men. In fact, women invest 90 percent of their income in their immediate families and, when they own their property, they have more power over household decisions, food security is enhanced, and prospects are greatly improved for their children and future generations, according to the World Economic Forum.
For years the Rainforest Alliance has worked with farmers and many other stakeholders to improve gender equality through certification, training, and advocacy. Our current certification standards require equal pay for equal work and prohibit discrimination and sexual harassment, but our 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard will go much further than a simple prohibition. Here, too, the standard will use an assess-and-address approach, requiring farms and farm groups to appoint a person or committee to take charge of combating gender-based discrimination, sexual violence, and harassment.
We also promote and measure women’s participation in our farmer training programs, which provide concrete instruction on best farming practices, climate-smart methods, financial literacy, and more. Women’s participation in income-generating activities is just as central to our work with forest communities. Supporting and strengthening sustainable, women-run businesses is a key part of our community forestry initiatives in Guatemala and Mexico.
Advocacy and stakeholder collaboration also play an important role in our efforts to promote gender equality. Through our Sector Partnership Program, we support local organizations in nine countries where cocoa, coffee, and tea are produced to advocate for changes in policies and programs that can make these sectors more sustainable and inclusive for smallholders––especially for women. In Indonesia, for example, we support a local organization called the Kalimajari Foundation in its efforts to facilitate government programs targeting women cocoa farmers. As a result, the government designated a budget to provide training to women farmers.
The Rainforest Alliance recognizes that in order to advance gender equality in the sectors we work in, we have to increase awareness, knowledge, and skills related to gender equality in our own organization. We focus on ensuring that our staff—from the field teams to the leadership team—have the knowledge, understanding, and tools they need to promote gender equality among colleagues as well as with external stakeholders.
Indigenous and local land rights
Since its founding in 1987, the Rainforest Alliance has worked to uphold land rights for Indigenous people, who manage 35 percent of the world’s intact forests (and who do so more successfully than governments, with a fraction of the budget, studies show), and for local rural communities. The very first forestry standard, which was created in 1989 by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, co-founded by the Rainforest Alliance) required land tenure to be clear, and to this day, a forestry operation with outstanding land claims or conflicts cannot achieve FSC certification. Since those early days, we’ve seen a trend of governments around the world handing back land rights to local people—a trend bolstered by the unparalleled success of our work with the forest communities of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Our partner communities there won land rights and successfully built thriving sustainable forest economies built on the rigorously managed harvest of timber and non-timber forest products—resulting in an astonishing near-zero deforestation rate in these concessions.
Despite this global trend, however, Indigenous and local land rights continue to be under assault in many regions of the world. The Rainforest Alliance partners with Indigenous communities from the Amazon to Indonesia to cultivate strong local economies that are rooted in Indigenous values and traditions—and linked to the global marketplace. With thriving local economies, communities can better withstand threats to their way of life and the health of their land.
Promoting and protecting human rights: It takes an alliance
Most human rights abuses in agricultural and forestry supply chains are rooted in the social, political, and/or economic challenges of a particular region or country. The responsibility for protecting human rights within a production landscape should be shared by governments, companies, traders, farmers, and forest communities—with organizations like the Rainforest Alliance playing an important convener role. Our strategic approach to sustainability transformation—including certification, well-designed training programs, landscape economic development initiatives, and targeted company and government advocacy—are valuable tools for advancing human rights within the production landscapes where we work.