1.5 Million Children Still Work on West African Cocoa Farms, Report Finds

Their labor could be contained in your favorite chocolate bar.

boy works on cocoa farm
Daniel Dibango, 13, spreads out cocoa beans lying to dry in Ediki village, Cameroon.

Ann Johansson / Getty Images

With Halloween just around the corner, people will be eating more chocolate than usual. Unfortunately, the sweet flavor of this delightful candy is tainted by a new report that has found approximately 1.5 million children still work in West Africa's cocoa industry, despite almost two decades of effort to reduce child labor.

Sixty percent of the world's cocoa comes from Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, which means that the biggest chocolate producers are intimately connected to an industry that remains notoriously murky and unregulated. Since 2001, when U.S. Congress pressured Nestlé, Hershey, Mars, and other candy companies to eliminate "the worst forms of child labor" from their supply chains by signing the Harkin-Engel Protocol, little has happened. The companies have missed targets in 2005, 2008, and 2010 to reduce child labor by 70%. The Protocol is set to expire in 2021.

Now, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and carried out by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) over the past five years has attempted to quantify progress (or lack thereof). Between 2008 and 2018, the prevalence of child labor in both Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire increased from 31% to 45%. The researchers note that cocoa production did increase by 62% during the time period, which shows that child labor has not increased at the same rate. This is a positive sign and suggests that some interventions are working, but it is not enough.

Child labor is defined as a child between the ages of 5 and 17 working hours that exceed the maximum allowable hours for his or her age group; and hazardous child labor refers to engaging in work that could cause harm, such as carrying heavy objects, helping clear land, using agro-chemicals, using sharp tools, working long hours, and working at night. 

The general consensus among critics and advisors to the report seems to be that the issue of child labor is deeply complex and that companies may not have grasped all that's required to eradicate (or at least greatly reduce) it. The Washington Post cites Richard Scobey of the World Cocoa Foundation, who defended the companies' lack of progress because the targets "were set without fully understanding the complexity and scale of a challenge heavily associated with poverty in rural Africa" and that "companies alone cannot solve the problem."

Dario Soto Abril, CEO of Fairtrade International, does not defend the companies, but agrees that there are many complex and interdependent causes, and that poverty is a significant driver of pushing children into unsafe working conditions. In an official statement, Soto Abril said:

"Poverty, low wages, labor shortages, poor working conditions, weak governmental involvement, lack of impactful educational opportunities, unsafe schools, exploitation and discrimination, political unrest and conflict – and now the effects of COVID-19, as well – all contribute to the use of child labor in the West African production of cocoa ... When farmers are trapped in poverty, they can’t afford to invest in more efficient methods to improve their income and, as such, resort to the cheapest forms of child labor."

The most effective way to move these farmers out of poverty is to pay them more for what they produce. Fairtrade has long advocated for this in the form of a Fairtrade Minimum Price and an annual Premium, which allows for farmers to earn a living wage and to use additional funds to develop infrastructure of their choosing within their own communities. 

Constructing schools and improving access to education would help keep children out of the cocoa plantations. The NORC report said that many parents are forced to take their children to the farms because they cannot afford to enroll them in school or pay for school materials: "The improved accessibility and affordability of schools allowed children who would otherwise be working during school hours to enroll and spend less time working."

But voluntary programs cannot do it all. Stronger enforcement of production standards is needed to ensure that these farmers thrive, so that their children do not need to join the workforce. Soto Abril's statement offers a list of additional suggestions, including northern governments funding efforts by West African governments to monitor and remediate child labor and revise minimum wages for cocoa workers. It calls on consumer countries to set higher standards for the products they import and sell, e.g. ensuring that they meet Human and Environmental Rights Due Diligence regulations. Measures must be put in place to protect, rehabilitate, and train children who have been removed from labor. 

And, of course, there's an obligation on the part of consumers – we chocolate lovers of the developed world. We may be far removed from West Africa's cocoa plantations, but the choices we make in stores have a ripple effect that stretches across the ocean and down the African continent. We must commit to buying products that support what we believe is important – "providing producers with stable income that allows them the ability to plan for their futures and decide how best to invest in their communities and farms." 

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We must demand that our favorite brands adopt Fairtrade certification, if they haven't already. Fairtrade America told Treehugger that, globally, interest in Fairtrade continues to grow:

"We know that consumers are aligning their buying power with their values now more than ever. That’s why Fairtrade will continue to work with companies that want to show their commitment to ensuring producers earn decent livelihoods, which includes a maintaining healthy environment for all."

The future of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, and whether or not it will be renewed in 2021, is unknown at this point. Unfortunately the issue of child labor in cocoa production is less dominant in public discussions than it was in past years, but it remains an important issue. Hopefully this report will renew interest in the topic. At the very least, it should get homeowners thinking about what kind of chocolate they're going to buy for Halloween this year. Change starts at home.