Did you know that some of your favorite foods may be produced with child labor? Take chocolate, for instance: 60 percent of its main ingredient, cocoa, is grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where child labor remains widespread.
Due to the impacts of Covid-19, child labor in and beyond these countries could increase. When children are out of school, they are more likely to be engaged in harmful work. Also, virus-induced restrictions could lead to disruptions in the cocoa supply chain, which would cause economic distress among rural cocoa farmers. A recent report by the International Cocoa Initiative compared more than 50 studies looking at how changes in income impact child labor. It found that when household incomes or earning opportunities unexpectedly drop, child labor tends to increase. An example from the Ivory Coast shows that a 10 percent fall in income, due to a drop in cocoa price, led to an increase in child labor by more than five percent. Furthermore, cocoa farmers – like everyone else – face risk of infection, which would affect their ability to work. Children of sick parents or children with only one living parent could therefore be relied upon for all the farm work for their family’s survival.
Remarkable strides have been made in the last 20 years to decrease the number of children involved in child labor worldwide—and the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which aspires to eradicate all forms of child labor by 2025, has created a new momentum for this pressing challenge.
And yet, the International Labour Organization estimates that a staggering 152 million children worldwide are still involved in child labor today. Most of them, roughly 71 percent, are working in agriculture—work that can be dangerous and exhausting with long hours in the hot sun. The problem is particularly acute in Africa, where nearly half of the child laborers (72.1 million) are found, the majority in agriculture.
This can and must change. But while banning child labor is commonly perceived as the magic bullet, it’s not enough. Years of experience working in cocoa, coffee, tea and other agricultural sectors has demonstrated that a punitive approach to child labor does not empower farmers and their communities to solve the real issue. Instead, farmers may attempt to hide child labor from auditors tasked with checking that they comply with labor standards. This makes child labor harder to detect, and therefore even harder to tackle. At the same time, it is impossible for auditors to monitor all farms every day throughout the year, which is why audits can fail to identify child labor.
So how should child labor be addressed? First, it is critical that all actions are tailored to specific contexts, which may range from small, remote family farms living below poverty lines to big plantations using migrant laborers who may bring their children to help with the harvest and earn a bit extra.
Child labor is a complex issue with different social, economic and political causes. These causes can include lack of access to education, weak enforcement of labor laws, lack of women’s empowerment, poverty and insufficient social protection for the poor. On top of that, a severe pandemic has been added to the list.
It is estimated that a typical cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast, for instance, earns a meagre USD 1,908 a year from cocoa and USD 2,900 from all income combined. This is well below a living income—defined at USD 5,448—needed to afford a decent standard of living. Low incomes can result in farmers keeping their children out of school to work on the farm, as hiring additional labor during harvests can be too expensive.
It is important to note that not all tasks done by children on farms are considered child labor. To the contrary, work can be positive for a child. Depending on their age, children can perform paid regular or light work or work on their family farm, if this is not dangerous and doesn’t interfere with school. This can be an important part of learning the family business and help ensure future generations of cocoa farmers.
Instead of companies and certification organizations immediately severing the relationship with a farmer when a case of child labor has been found and thus increasing the likelihood that the child will continue to be in child labor and drop out of school, awareness-raising and support can increase the likelihood that the child returns to school and supports his/her family with age-appropriate work in the afternoons and weekends. Imposing sanctions without addressing the root cause can be destructive for farming families and communities. It does nothing to lift farmers out of poverty or to solve child labor.
That is why the Rainforest Alliance, an organization that works to improve farmer livelihoods while protecting the environment, is one of several shifting to a new approach to tackle the global challenge of child labor. The “assess and address” approach focuses on tackling the root causes of child labor; furthermore, it is aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The assess and address approach incentivizes farmers to tackle the root cause of child labor rather than try to hide it. Farms will be required to set up an internal committee that is responsible for preventing child labor, as well as forced labor, discrimination, and workplace violence and harassment. The farms will work proactively on preventing child labor, by researching the local causes of child labor and tackling those causes; by raising awareness about what work children are allowed and not allowed to do; and by monitoring, identifying, and remediating cases. Farms will be able to share information on the progress they are making to prevent and respond to child labor with their supply chain partners and seek further support from them in addressing the issue.
Child labor still won’t be tolerated on certified farms, but an identified case found will not lead to immediate decertification. Instead, farms are required to remove the child from child labor and support the family to prevent the child returning to child labor. This support can vary from helping a family to obtain their children’s birth certificates in order to register for school, to requesting better access to schools and improving the quality of schooling or supporting a farmer to improve the household income.
Obviously, one single organization cannot solve a challenge of this complexity and scale alone. Resolving it requires long-term collaboration between different actors.
Governments need to ensure that child labor laws are in line with international labor conventions and that such laws are enforced through regular inspections. Governments also need to provide access to free and quality education for children and access to decent healthcare for everyone. Supporting vulnerable families through social protections and income support is also essential.
Many major chocolate companies have been at the frontline of tackling child labor, through child labor monitoring and remediation systems. Others have made good progress in mapping their suppliers down to the farm level, which is a critical first step in identifying the risk of child labor and ultimately eliminating it. It’s also essential that companies collaborate with NGOs and governments on programs that tackle some of the root causes of child labor. Last but certainly not least, paying better prices to help cocoa farmers achieve a living income should be part of the solution as well.
Certification organizations and other NGOs that work on creating more sustainable cocoa supply chains must continue to play their part by stimulating policy change and supporting families and communities to prevent and resolve child labor.
Finally, consumers must do their bit by demanding that brands pay farmers a better price for cocoa and support cocoa communities in farming more sustainably.
Child labor—not only in the cocoa industry, but also in coffee, hazelnuts, and other global supply chains— demands our urgent attention. All of us need to do our part to improve the livelihoods of farmers and farming communities around the world in a way that supports children and lets them access the opportunities they deserve.
Addressing the immediate impacts and further spread of Covid-19 in West Africa is crucial but let this be a reminder that we need to look beyond that and help create more resilient systems for long-lasting change.
Author’s note: first published in WEF