This paper highlights the contribution of women and children to the sugar industry in Fiji by examining the importance of family labour in the historical development of the smallholder system and describing the present situation for the study participants. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted during 1996–97, on the island of Vanua Levu in the northern region of Fiji. The twenty smallholder households in the study comprised both Fijian and Fiji Indian respondents who relied primarily on selling sugar cane for their cash income. How inequalities within the household in terms of allocation of labour and resources are legitimated is outlined. Resource distribution within the household in regards to two important issues for the sugar industry, land and trade liberalisation, are examined. In light of global trends in trade liberalisation and probable falls in sugar prices, future strategies for survival identified by Fijian and Fiji Indian smallholders are also discussed. The case study demonstrates that the sugar industry is still largely reliant on family labour and, particularly for low socio‐economic smallholders, the unremunerated labour of family members makes an essential contribution to the production of sugar cane.