Child labour and cocoa: whose voices prevail?

Amanda Berlan, March 2010

Between December 2001 and November 2003, I spent a total of 15 months undertaking fieldwork in Ghana with children from a cluster of villages in the Ashanti region where the local economy revolves around the production of cocoa. I worked with a total of 84 children, ranging in age from about 10 to 16.

My research showed that there is a deep conflict between the culture in which these children grow up and the model of childhood that has informed international media attention and public concern about child labour and cocoa farming in West Africa.

Child labour or education?

Most of the children I spoke to worked on small-scale and family-owned cocoa farms and most of them also attended school, as is common in rural Ghana. The children in my study readily described themselves as poor and for some of them it was work which made schooling possible.

Paradoxically, the school environment was not free from child labour, illustrating that child labour and education are not always mutually exclusive. The pupils were required to do farm work for the school at least once a week so that a plot of land could be used to produce crops to generate revenue for the school. It was arduous manual work, involving the use of machetes, and sometimes carried out on very hot days.

Farm work for the school was potentially more dangerous than working on the family cocoa farm where the children worked under the guidance of their families and what was expected of them was determined by their level of experience and ability. On the family farm weeding involved maintaining rather than clearing land as the farms were well-established, and the work offered shade and protection from the sun. The children could pick fruit as they worked which they valued as they were often hungry.

In contrast, children working on the school plot were less closely supervised and worked in closer proximity to each other so the broad machete sweeps with which they cleared the land could more easily have resulted in injury.

Many children told me they preferred to work on the family farm than go to school, even though they were keen to get an education, because the under-resourced and overcrowded school environment was not conducive to learning, hunger meant many suffered stomach cramps and literacy outcomes were poor.

The children’s acceptance of work also reflected the abhorrence with which Ghanaian society views laziness and the value attached to being an economically productive member of society.

Child labour and cultural norms

My research showed that there is a deep conflict between the culture in which these children grow up and the model of childhood informing the ILO’s goal of eliminating child labour.

The ILO places considerable emphasis on excluding children from the workplace, using age and the harm that they may be exposed to as the criteria for exclusion. By these standards, the involvement of children on cocoa farms in Ghana is hazardous: they use machetes, carry heavy loads, wear no protective clothing.

Yet, children all over Ghana learn to use machetes from a young age to accomplish a variety of tasks such as preparing food and, as a result, they are very skilled in using them. In this context, focusing on machete use by children in the cocoa industry seems misplaced and it is ironic that the use of machetes has been condemned on cocoa farms but not in schools.

Cocoa and child labour in the media

Perceptions about children’s involvement in cocoa production in West Africa have been shaped by the media, particularly when two stories linking child slavery with cocoa farming were reported in 2000 and 2001. They sparked global interest and generated an assumption that the problems were endemic to the entire industry, overlooking the fact that cocoa provides a livelihood for millions of farmers and their families, and the majority of children, in Ghana at least, who work on cocoa farms do so voluntarily and in a family context.

The media accounts at the time depicted horrific scenarios of abuse but many of the allegations have since been found to be flawed.

Child labour initiatives

Following the media allegations, a wide range of initiatives were put in place to tackle abusive labour practices in the West African cocoa industry. Among these, the Harkin-Engel Protocol emerged as having the most wide-ranging and long-term scope. The Protocol was useful as it brought together key stakeholders but it had little direct engagement with cocoa producers in Ghana. Neither local community representatives nor child workers from Ghana were involved in shaping its constitution it was deemed that the chocolate manufacturers were the ones in control of child labour issues.

More broadly, journalists, policymakers and other interested parties, by taking up the cause, became the de facto representatives of children in the cocoa industry in the public arena although the only narratives they represented were the ones which reiterated a worldview where children were forced to work and had no choices. In doing so, they exemplified broader paternalistic tendencies within movements for child rights.


Although the welfare of children has supposedly been the central factor behind the frenzy of stories of abuse in the West African cocoa industry, rarely have the voices of the children in question prevailed in the ensuing debates. This represents a failure to conceive of child rights holistically and an insistence on pre-conceived moral judgments about what a childhood should look like.

Amanda Berlan is a Research Fellow at the Brookes World Poverty Institute/Sustainable Consumption Institute. This is a condensed version of a full article published by Emerald Publishing in 2009.