World Day Against Child Labour: Confection’s Confessions

Child Labour

There are some topics you report on that just makes you angry and depressed. I will be talking about one such topic today – Child Labour. Just so that we are all on the same page, child labour is when children are routinely employed in paid/unpaid work that is harmful to their physical, mental, social and educational development. It is not child labour when you support your parents in running the family business or if you’re working part-time during school holidays. 

When I was researching the facts on child labour, I could not help but think how lucky I was as a child. All my basic needs were comfortably fulfilled – water, food, education, electricity, etc. However, many children around the world still do not have access to these basic needs. They should, but they don’t. What is worse is that 152 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are forced into child labour. They are made to drop out of school and work in extremely harsh conditions for long hours. Nearly 71% of these 152 million children work in some type of agricultural farms, and roughly 50% of them work in hazardous conditions. So, who are the major funders for these agricultural farms? The major culprits have been the cocoa, coffee, tea, and the textile industry.  

Recently, the cocoa industry has come under the spotlight once again for the prevalence of child labour in its supply chain. Since today is World Day Against Child Labour, I thought we can explore why child labour is so prevalent in the cocoa industry, has anything been done about it and what can we do to start addressing it. 

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World Day Against Child Labour – Cocoa Industry & False Promises 

The year was 2001, and the cocoa industry was coming under fire for not addressing its child labour problem in its supply chain.  The U.S. Congress decided to step in and pressure the chiefs of some big chocolate companies like Mars, Hershey, Nestle, and Cargill sign a pledge to eradicate “the worst forms of child labour” from their cocoa suppliers. Most of these cocoas come from West Africa. They had 4 years to achieve it. However, when they made these initial set of promises to abolish child labour, these companies had little to no idea of how to do so. Understandably, these companies failed to achieve the target.  

So, instead of trying to invest more time and resource to solve this problem, the chocolate industry instead scaled back their ambition and set a deadline for 2005 to reduce child labour by 70%. Did they meet this target? Well if they had, I would have used this article to praise them. So far, they have set the same objective of reducing child labour by 70% by 2008, 2010 and 2020. They have successfully missed the deadlines for 2008 and 2010. Like the student who always wants an extension for their homework, the chocolate industry extended its deadline to 2020. Is 2020 going to be the year the chocolate industry finally fulfils their promises? 

World Day Against Child Labour

Source: Courtesy of The Washington Post

An official report funded by the US Labour department reveals that child labour on cocoa farms in West Africa has increased between 2010 and 2020. The full report is set to be published at the end of June 2020. Regardless, even in this sneak peek, the report reveals how miserably the chocolate industry has failed to meet its targets. The percentage of children involved in child labour in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana went from 30 to 41% between 2008/09 to 2018/19. Child labour in 2020 is higher than it was in 2010, which means not only did they fail, they have let it become worse. During this same time period: 

  1. Cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana went from 1.89 million tons to 3 million tons 
  2. Price of cocoa went from $2,263 US/ton to $2,626 USD/ton 

So, you are telling me that despite cocoa production and profits going up, child labour has continued to worsen? In all this, the chocolate industry, which collects nearly $103 billion in sales annually, has only spent $150 million over 18 years to address child labour. There has also been zero punishment to the chocolate industries for not meeting these goals.  I am sorry, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this. How has this gone unpunished? What has the chocolate industry been doing all this time to eradicate child labour in its cocoa supply chain? 

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Tackling Child Labour for PR Reasons 

When you dig a little deep, you get the impression that these chocolate industries have no intention of eradication child labour. Just look at the following stats regarding tracing back cocoa to farms:  

  1. Mars can only trace back 24% of its cocoa back to farms 
  2. Nestle can only trace 49% of its cocoa back to farms 
  3. Hershey can only trace less than 50% of its cocoa back to farms.  

This is beyond confusing to me. How do you not know as a business where more than 50% of your raw material comes from? Their grand solution to this and tackling child labour was to buy cocoa from certified farmers. Certification provided by groups like Fairtrade, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance. These organisations ensure the farms that supply cocoa have no child labour, meet modern ethical standards and are audited to make sure it is all upheld. These certified farmers, in turn, get paid 10% more, which by the way is not enough to lift the farmers out of poverty. Sounds like a decent principle, right? Which is why Mars and Hershey buy nearly 50% and 80% of their cocoa from certified farmers.  

World Day Against Child Labour

Source: Courtesy of The Washington Post

However, the audits conducted by these organisations don’t necessarily instil confidence. The inspectors from these organisations are required to visit fewer than 10% of cocoa farms. Even the inspections themselves are telegraphed and so sporadic, that they are easily evaded. The inspectors typically announce in advance that they are going to visit the farm. Thus, making it easy for the farmers to hide the children. Even these chocolate companies have said that these certifications are inadequate to tackle the child labour challenge. So, why haven’t these companies done anything more? Could it be that they are only doing this to simply avoid negative press? One can only ponder.  

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The Road Ahead to Stop Child Labour 

So, what does the road ahead look like? First, we must stop viewing auditing farms and banning child labour as a magic bullet solution. Research has shown that it only makes detecting child labour more difficult. Child labour is a complex issue that is underpinned by social, economic and political reasons. Child labour can be a result of poverty, lack of access to education, weak local and national labour laws, lack of women empowerment, etc. We must start addressing each of these complexities in tandem with child labour, otherwise, we are not fixing the problem.   

Second, the cocoa farmers are not paid their worth. The Living Income Report published by GIZ revealed a typical cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast earns between US$1,908 and US$2900 a year. This is much lower than the US$5,448 needed to afford a decent standard of living. So, what can we as a consumer do to fix this? Well, we can demand the chocolate companies to pay the cocoa farmers a better price. After all, they are the ones doing the most amount of work for this. The question remains, will these companies implement this? There is a saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. I think I am personally done with trusting the chocolate industry’s shallow and false promises. Over the last 20 years, they have displayed nothing but incompetence and greed.  

I just want you to leave my readers with this one thought. Companies such as Mars, Nestle, Mondelez and other big cocoa buying companies have helped cut down rainforests to make way for cocoa plantations in regions like Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. While doing so, they have ripped the local livelihood of these places, replaced it with low paid plantations and have inadvertently encouraged child labour. All for a product called chocolate, which is a luxury made unexplainably cheap. Now tell me, don’t you think it is madness that a product that no one “really” needs are causing both the environment and its people to suffer? 

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