For two decades, child labor in cocoa growing areas in West Africa has been well known, and despite voluntary corporate commitments, we are still seeing children working to produce cocoa for chocolate bars. Recently, Reuters got a hold of a leaked draft of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, examining the prevalence of child labor in cocoa producing areas in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. This study found increased amounts of child labor in chocolate production, when compared to the last survey conducted in 2013/14. Despite major chocolate companies stating that they are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to make cocoa growing sustainable, the problem of child labor is getting worse.

It is estimated that over 2 million children experience hazardous child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast through cocoa production. These two countries make up a vast majority of the global cocoa production, and the amount of cocoa they produce is growing.

In 2010, major chocolate companies pledged to reduce child labor by 70% by 2020. Reuters notes that the leaked report shows that chocolate companies will have failed to meet this commitment, making it increasingly clear that we cannot leave it up to the industry to fix this problem. Even industry actors are calling for mandatory due diligence regulation that would require all companies to track and remedy child labor and other human rights abuses.

In early April, Green America, Be Slavery Free, and Mighty Earth published a joint chocolate scorecard, which surveyed some of the world’s largest corporate actors in the chocolate industry. Our scorecard looked at six key issues facing the chocolate industry: child labor, living income, traceability and transparency, deforestation, agroforestry, and support for mandatory due diligence regulation. We found tremendous variation in corporate sustainability efforts, from leaders like Tony’s Chocolonely to laggards like Godiva, highlighting the need for due diligence regulations to force all companies to take action on issues like child labor, not just the leading companies.

Nearly every major company has come out in support of mandatory due diligence regulation. This sends a signal to governments that industry recognizes it needs help to end child labor and that industry is supportive of this level of regulation.

What is child labor?

An estimated 152 million children are victims of child labor and 73 million work in hazardous child labor. A common counter to the child labor issue is that children should be able to help on family farms and learn the trade – which is true but under the right conditions and when it has no negative impact on the child’s development. The ILO defines the following terms as such:

Child work: “participating in work that does not negatively affect their health and development or interfere with their education.”

Child labor: “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”, such as interfering with their education.

Hazardous child labor: Work that is “by its nature of the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children.”

Worst forms of child labor: sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, forced or compulsory labor, including that forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; child prostitution; the use, procuring, or offering a child for illicit activities; and work that is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children.

While some speculate that the instances of forced child labor have declined, there are still millions of children carrying out hazardous work. One of the key drivers for child labor and forced child labor in cocoa production is farmer poverty. Cocoa farmers often live on less than $1 per day, which forces them to use children for labor. After years of the industry pushing for increased productivity to increase farmer income, rather than paying a fair price for cocoa, conversations around a living income and what it would take to get cocoa farmers a living income are growing.

Additionally, there are cases of forced adult labor in the cocoa industry, though much of the focus has been on child labor so there is a smaller body of evidence documenting forced labor. In 2019, Verité assessed forced labor risks in the cocoa sector in the Ivory Coast. The report notes that while the percentage of forced labor in the adult population is low, so many individuals are involved in the cocoa sector that the number of adults experiencing forced labor is likely in the thousands.

In the Covid-19 Context

The cocoa growing community is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19 for several reasons, including the financial impacts that will negatively impact a population that is already impoverished and not being paid nearly enough for the cocoa they produce. Additionally, inadequate nutrition and a lack of access to basic healthcare makes cocoa growing communities even more susceptible to Covid-19.

In early April, The Voice Network, of which Green America is a member of, released a call to action to the cocoa and chocolate industry. The recommendations include:

  1. Cease all non-essential farm visits;
  2. Support communication to farming communities on health messaging;
  3. Use existing supply chain mechanisms for provisioning farming communities;
  4. Set up an emergency relief fund commensurate to the challenge.

COVID-19 threatens to increase farmer poverty, which will likely increase child labor. In addition, as schools close in West Africa, children will work longer hours on farms. Chocolate companies, which have made billions of dollars of profits from cocoa need to dramatically increase aid to cocoa growing communities to aid families and children.

Individual Action

At Green America, we work to create a just and sustainable economy for all. One way we achieve this is to mobilize consumers to create a demand for ethically made goods. If you are looking for small, ethical chocolate companies, take a look at our list of A-rated brands, many of which have options to order online! Additionally, you can reach out directly to large chocolate companies and let them know that you are concerned about child labor in cocoa production and hope they will do more to end child labor in cocoa production.

Charlotte Tate is the Labor Justice Campaigns Manager at Green America

Photo credit: John Loo