24 Jul 2020

“Shocked but not surprised”: Fairtrade responds to report of widespread child labour in West African cocoa industry

Allegations contained in a report funded by the US Department of Labor that more than two million children are working on cocoa farms across West Africa are shocking, but unsurprising. For multi-stakeholder groups such as Fairtrade, who have been working to eliminate the problem for many years, the study simply serves to highlight the urgent need for decent incomes for cocoa farmers and workers.

The report, which has been seen by Fairtrade and is expected to be published shortly, reveals the widespread use of children in unacceptable labour practices, including growing, harvesting and production, in the West African cocoa industry. While the numbers are shocking, they sadly come as no surprise. However, given that campaigners and civil society organizations have been working to eliminate child labour in cocoa supply chains for many years, it is legitimate to ask why it is still rife in the industry.

The answer is complicated. Labour shortages, low wages for seasonal and migrant workers, poor working conditions, weak governmental labour inspection regimes, lack of educational opportunities and unsafe schools, and unequal distribution of income among household members - along with conflict and poverty in surrounding countries - all contribute to child labour in cocoa. On top of that comes the additional health and economic impacts of COVID-19, exacerbated by the parents lack of childcare due to community school closures, forcing them to take their children to the fields.

In 2010, Fairtrade was the first voluntary certification to publicly identify child trafficking for labour practices on its own farms in West Africa, which were revealed through audits by our independent, ISO 17065 accredited certifier, FLOCERT. A decade on, as COVID-19 swept across Africa, Fairtrade warned of a likely spike in child labour cases in cocoa growing regions due to school closures and movement restrictions. As Anne-Marie Yao, regional cocoa manager for Fairtrade Africa, told Reuters in April this year, “In normal circumstances children are already vulnerable, and now they are not going to school. We don’t have access to those villages, we don’t know exactly what is happening, and we know that this is the mid-season harvesting period.”

“We know that when farmers are trapped in poverty, they can’t afford to invest in more efficient or productive farming methods to improve their income,” said Dario Soto Abril, CEO of Fairtrade International. “Some may turn to illegally clearing forests or growing illicit crops in an attempt to earn more. They can’t pay their workers a decent wage, or worse, they may resort to using children for cheap labour.”

Fairtrade is leading the campaign for living incomes for self-employed farmers and living wages for workers. A decent standard of living - one that covers basic needs and supports an existence worthy of human dignity - is a human right. For Fairtrade producers and workers, that means being able to afford a nutritious diet, clean water, decent housing, education, health care and other essential needs for themselves and their their families - plus a little extra for emergencies and savings.

As part of our commitment to living incomes for cocoa farmers, in October 2019, Fairtrade increased the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Premium by 20 percent in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Unfortunately, however, preliminary figures show an 11 percent drop in Ivorian Fairtrade cocoa sales, following the price increase.

“This fall in volume is a stark reminder of the realities we face,” said Soto Abril. “Fairtrade’s ability to tackle the issue of child labour and poverty in cocoa is directly related to the amount of cocoa producers can sell on Fairtrade terms. Our data suggest that, currently, less than five percent of cocoa sold globally - and around eight percent from Côte d’Ivoire - are sold on Fairtrade terms. That means even certified producers are unable to sell all their crop on Fairtrade terms, which in turn means they don’t receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Premium on all their cocoa. As a result, we’ve found that more than half of certified producers are still living in extreme poverty.”

Fairtrade cannot solve these problems alone, but nor can we wait for cocoa and chocolate brands to commit to paying producers a fair price and to tackling human rights abuses in their supply chains. We are already taking action on several fronts to protect the vulnerable while continuing to advocate for fair prices for producers.

Act to Protect

Even though Fairtrade Standards prohibit child labour, on-site inspections cannot happen daily and no certification system can provide a 100 percent guarantee that a product is free of child labour.

In a 2018 study commissioned by Coca Cola, the independent researchers concluded that “corporate tools such as Right to Know, and [Fairtrade certified] producer organizations’ protection policies such as Act to Protect are innovative and together could contribute to efforts to eliminate child labor...” Fairtrade pledges that if we or others find breaches to our child labour requirements as indicated in Fairtrade Standards, we take immediate action to protect the impacted child or children. If child labour has been alleged, Fairtrade’s trained staff undertake an assessment, and if child labour is confirmed or indicated as a high risk, we report it to the national protection agency of the government for follow-up.

Prevention, Monitoring and Remediation

In those countries and supply chains where child labour is a known problem - such as West Africa - Fairtrade works with producer organizations, farmers, and supply chain actors to mitigate the risk, rather than focusing solely on auditing, compliance and penalties. Fairtrade Producer Networks provide training and support to implement community-based monitoring and remediation systems, such as Fairtrade’s Youth Inclusive Community Based Monitoring and Remediation system for child labour.

Shared Accountability

Voluntary certification systems alone cannot address the scale of the child labour problem in West African cocoa production. It is essential that all concerned consumers, governments, civil society organizations and businesses work together to monitor progress and work constructively towards sustainable farming communities and supply chains that respect all human rights.

Businesses must adapt their value chain models to ensure producers get a fair price for their crop, and are not - as if often the case - paid the least for doing the hardest work. Just as critically, where child labour is identified, companies must work collaboratively and take joint responsibility for solving the problem, rather than dropping producer organizations as a knee-jerk reaction to protect their own corporate reputation.

Governments are ultimately responsible for ensuring that child labour laws are implemented in their jurisdictions, whether this be in the counties that produce, process and/or manufacture cocoa into chocolate.

Voluntary certifications such as Fairtrade must continue to hold businesses accountable through audits. They must advocate robustly for producers and help amplify their voices, while raising consumer awareness around human rights issues.

For their part, consumers must demand accountability from chocolate brands and retailers, and purchase products that align with their values.

Not every Fairtrade critic and stakeholder will be satisfied with the solutions we propose or the speed of our progress towards them. Nevertheless, we will continue our work with companies and organizations which are serious about paying workers and farmers fairly, ending human rights abuses, and advocating for laws that make fair trade the norm rather than the exception. We think that’s only fair.