A young worker dries cocoa beans on a plantation in Ghana. Gates Foundation/Flickr. Creative Commons.Child exploitation in the West African cocoa industry has long captivated public attention. The news that cocoa, a key ingredient in chocolate, was being produced using child labour or even child slavery shocked European and North American consumers when the allegations first emerged in the press over fifteen years ago. The media accounts presented hellish scenarios of children working long hours for little or no pay on sprawling cocoa plantations. There, we were told, they risked beatings, extreme hunger or even death. Many of the accounts made disturbing links between the producers and consumers of chocolate. "People who are drinking cocoa or coffee are drinking their blood”, said the director of the Save the Children Fund in Mali to the BBC in 2001. “It is the blood of young children carrying 6kg of cocoa sacks so heavy that they have wounds all over their shoulders”.
Unfortunately, and confusingly for the audiences of these reports, key terms and statistics were often misused. No distinction was made, for example, between child slavery and child labour, let alone different types of child labour. The term ‘plantation’ was often used to denote what were actually small family plots of land, thus erroneously implying a type of large-scale commercial exploitation. Moreover, hugely variable statistics with no supporting evidence abounded. Initial reports that 90 percent of cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire relied on child slavery were subsequently revised to less than 2 percent. It also emerged that some stories were fabricated. For example, Michael Finkel, a former writer for the New York Times Magazine, was forced to admit that his article on child slavery in Côte d’Ivoire was "a deceptive blend of fact and fiction".
For many, a discussion of the details of the case may seem irrelevant. Does it matter if child slavery occurs on 90 percent or 2 percent of cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire? Surely any child slavery needs to be eradicated. And why does the terminology matter? We just need to rescue the kids, right? I do not wish to rewrite the stories of these children—whatever they are—in complex academic jargon; clearly their best interests are not served by complicating the issues unnecessarily. However, it is important to acknowledge that the best interests of these children are also not well served by making the issues appear simpler than they actually are. After fifteen years of media reports, company shaming, interventions, investments, and every possible awareness-raising initiative, the problem of child exploitation in West Africa cocoa is still said to persist. This suggests that there is clearly a need for different, critical and innovative thinking.
The complex lives of child labourers
Child exploitation in West African cocoa has always been treated as a labour issue, in the sense that it has been couched in employment terms such as rights, working hours, health, safety, lack of remuneration and restricted freedom. This approach worked well to tackle child labour in the industrial revolution in the UK. It is less appropriate in the context of West African cocoa production, where a whole host of other considerations conspire, intentionally or otherwise, to undermine the rights of children.
I conducted fieldwork in cocoa communities in Ghana over a 15-month period in 2001-2003. The work that many of the children there were involved in falls under the ILO definition of the worst forms of child labour, yet they were not slaves. Labelling them victims of exploitation, and describing their situation in terms of human rights or employment law violations, does nothing to explain why these children work in cocoa production. All these depictions achieve is the creation of an unhelpful mental image in a Western audience that, problematically, becomes a basis for policymaking. However, the needs of the children are much more complex.
In my experience, many children in cocoa communities are illiterate. Some are in poor health and suffer chronic nutritional deficiencies. Many have chosen to drop out of school, despite their family’s wishes, because going to school is a deeply unattractive prospect for a child who is hungry and tired, and whose lack of concentration may result in punishment from the teacher. In contrast to this, farm work offers the possibility of access to water and food. For this reason a well-coordinated school feeding programme would be far more effective at moving children out of farms and into schools than anti-child labour ‘sensitisation’ campaigns emphasising that every child has the right to an education and should be in school. Thankfully school feeding programmes are currently being implemented across Ghana.
Family dynamics are also problematic. Divorce and family breakdown are common in rural Ghana. The children of divorced parents are much more likely to become involved in the worst forms of child labour, as they either end up in poorer, single-income households headed by their mothers, or in situations where their mothers remarry and their stepfathers or absent fathers refuse to pay for their upkeep. In such a situation, working in cocoa, irrespective of the nature of the work being undertaken, seems a rational choice. It reflects a need for survival rather than ignorance of rights or health and safety. At policy level, interventions to support women and/or strengthen family courts could help address these issues.
Of course, there are many other considerations which impact child rights in the cocoa industry beyond what I have already outlined. Not all could be discussed here. In order to safeguard children's welfare, taking a holistic, child-centred approach based on sound empirical information is much more effective than seeking to 'right' a list of wrongs based on western understandings. This, unfortunately, is where progress has been lacking over the course of the last fifteen years.