Did you know that some of your favorite foods may be produced with child labour? Take chocolate, for instance: 60% of its main ingredient, cocoa, is grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where child labour remains widespread.

Due to the impacts of COVID-19, child labour 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 labour. It found that when household incomes or earning opportunities unexpectedly drop, child labour tends to increase. An example from the Ivory Coast shows that a 10% fall in income, due to a drop in cocoa price, led to an increase in child labour by more than 5%. 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 labour worldwide—and the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which aspires to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2025, has created a new momentum for this pressing challenge.

Global Estimates of Child Labour
Global Estimates of Child Labour
Image: International Labour Organization

And yet, the International Labour Organization estimates that a staggering 152 million children worldwide are still involved in child labour today. Most of them, roughly 71%, 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 labourers (72.1 million) are found, the majority in agriculture.

This can and must change. But while banning child labour 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 labour does not empower farmers and their communities to solve the real issue. Instead, farmers may attempt to hide child labour from auditors tasked with checking that they comply with labour standards. This makes child labour 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 labour.

So how should child labour 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 labourers who may bring their children to help with the harvest and earn a bit extra.

Child labour is a complex issue with different social, economic and political causes. These causes can include lack of access to education, weak enforcement of labour 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.

Global Estimates of Child Labour
Global Estimates of Child Labour
Image: International Labour Organization

It is estimated that a typical cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast, for instance, earns a meagre US$1,908 a year from cocoa and $2,900 from all income combined. This is well below a living income—defined at $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 labour during harvests can be too expensive.

It is important to note that not all tasks done by children on farms are considered child labour. 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 labour has been found, awareness-raising and support can increase the likelihood that the child returns to school and supports his or 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 labour.

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 labour. The “assess and address” approach focuses on tackling the root causes of child labour; 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 labour rather than try to hide it. Farms will be required to set up an internal committee that is responsible for preventing child labour, as well as forced labour, discrimination, and workplace violence and harassment. The farms will work proactively on preventing child labour, by researching the local causes of child labour 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 labour with their supply chain partners and seek further support from them in addressing the issue.

Child labour still won't be tolerated on certified farms, but an identified case will not lead to immediate decertification. Instead, farms are required to remove the child from child labour and support the family to prevent the further exploitation of the child. 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 labour laws are in line with international labour 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.

Image: Marcus Schaefer

Many major chocolate companies have been at the frontline of tackling child labour, through monitoring and remediation systems. Others have made good progress in mapping their suppliers down to the farm level, which is a critical first step. It’s also essential that companies collaborate with NGOs and governments on programmes that tackle some of the root causes of child labour. Last but certainly not least, paying better prices to help cocoa farmers achieve a living income should also be part of the solution.

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 labour.

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 labour—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.