Is there child labor in my ice cream?

Miguel* in his fathers field, 4 hours into a morning of cane harvesting

In a word, yes.

This is Miguel*. He’s 45. He has been harvesting cane for 30 years. His son is out of the frame here, because he’s still slashing stalks with a 3-foot machete. Two years into the job, he’s a strapping 17-year-old, and a father himself. Belize is home to the largest Fairtrade sugar market in the world. All of the fields in the Corozal and Orange Walk districts of Belize are certified, but that isn’t keeping kids out of the cane fields.

Kids cut cane because they have no alternatives. Secondary school is too pricey — over $250 a year at some local schools — and teens who become fathers themselves have to earn money to support their young wives and children.

The field Miguel stands in isn’t his own — it’s his father’s. He will eventually inherit this plot, as will his son, many more years down the road. Neither of them will get out of the cane industry, though they both say the work is too hard and dangerous.

The hours are long, the pay is low. Fairtrade premiums were providing opportunities for a while, but as the global sugar price has tanked, so have Fairtrade sugar sales. It’s just too pricey compared to uncertified sugar. Poverty is endemic in these regions, and alternative livelihoods are virtually nonexistent.

In an effort toward responsible business, Ben and Jerry’s uses Belize’s Fairtrade sugar in all of its ice creams. But before you go boycotting your Phish Phood and Chunky Monkey, be encouraged! Ben and Jerry’s is down here now, working with farmers on issues of child labor, low wages and rough working conditions.

*Miguel is not really his name. We’re not trying to get anyone sanctioned for Fairtrade violations, so his identity is concealed here.

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