From chocolate companies to cocoa farmers: who is taking action on child labour?

The BBC ran a story last week returning to the issue of child labour on cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire.

Humphrey Hawksley in Côte d'Ivoire

Humphrey Hawksley opens the short news video by observing: “Deep in the cocoa belt of the Ivory Coast, it’s not hard to find children at work.” He then goes on to interview a farmer, some children, and a chocolate industry PR representative.

The first stories of child slavery in the Ivory Coast hit the news over a decade ago. Then in 2001, the major players in the global chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary code of self-regulation drawn up by industry to avert proposed “slave free” labelling legislation in the US.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol provided for the creation of a foundation - the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) - to tackle child labour, and pledged to develop a certification system that would ensure chocolate was free from the worst forms of child labour.

The impact of these efforts have since been assessed through the authoritative Tulane University studies. Their final report was released earlier this year and concluded that while there has been action from the chocolate industry and “significant evidence of impact”, the funding has simply not been sufficient to achieve their stated goals.

Less than 5% of children and their caregivers surveyed in Ghana and Ivory Coast have reported exposure to industry programmes to tackle child labour. That gives an idea of the scale of what still needs to be done. At Trading Visions, we've estimated that the big industry players commit no more than 0.1% or 0.2% of their chocolate sales turnover to "social investment" in cocoa farmers' livelihoods.

In a thoughtful blog post about last week’s news programme, Barbara Crowther at the Fairtrade Foundation highlights the striking comment from the farmer interviewed by Humphrey Hawksley: “If the price is low I lose money. Right now it is low so I’m not doing very well.”

This at a time when world cocoa prices are actually relatively high.

One problem is that cocoa farmers in Côte d'Ivoire receive around 40% of the world price, compared to 60%-70% in neighbouring Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, according to the World Bank. Substantial government taxes and an inefficient supply chain in Côte d'Ivoire may account for much of this difference.

The Côte d'Ivoire government has recently stated the intention of creating a state-controlled company, along the lines of Cocobod in Ghana, to buy farmers’ cocoa and guarantee them a better proportion of the international cocoa price, so this situation could improve.

It’s a reminder that child labour is part of bigger issues. As Barbara Crowther puts it, “work to tackle child labour must be rooted in a much more holistic approach to poverty, more equity in trade and supply chain management, better governance and promotion of human rights.”

The Tulane University studies note that the governments of Côte d'Ivoire and particularly Ghana have played an increasingly active role over the last few years in setting national frameworks, establishing agencies and reaching many hundreds of communities with action plans to address child labour.

Coming back to the role of the chocolate industry, interestingly, the final Tulane report sees hope in the rise of "third party certification schemes" - like Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance - which provide “credible assurance” that certified cocoa is free from the worst forms of child labour. It calls on the chocolate industry to scale up their engagement with these certification initiatives.

The Harkin Engel Protocol, which originally planned to launch a child labour free certification system in 2005 and then extended this deadline to 2008, has finally ended with a whimper in 2011. There is a sense in which the focus has shifted away from the idea that the cocoa and chocolate industry has all, or any, of the answers.

The rise of the global Fairtrade label reflects an increasing focus on farmer-driven solutions to the issue. In Ghana, Kuapa Kokoo is now running a substantial child labour awareness programme that capitalises on their unrivalled grassroots outreach as a thriving Fairtrade cocoa co-operative. You can read the latest progress report on their website.

It may be that it is Fairtrade’s ability to get farmers organised and deal with the problems themselves that proves its biggest contribution to successful action on child labour.