Report from a child labour workshop in Ghana

Tom Allen, March 2010

Trading Visions and Kuapa Kokoo have collaborated on an educational project with young people from several schools in cocoa farming communities in Ghana over the last six years. The project has been focused on better educating and empowering the young people, increasing their understanding of Fairtrade and the role of their communities in the global chocolate supply chain, and co-producing educational materials for their peers in the UK.

In November 2009, Trading Visions and Kuapa Kokoo ran a “Kids Camp” in Kumasi focused on child labour, with around 70 young teenagers from several villages taking part in a facilitated discussion on the subject.

The lively presentation and discussion took place in English, frequently switching to Twi, the children's first language, when making particularly subtle or strong points.

The facilitators began with some basic definitions of legal rights. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines 'child' as someone under the age of 18, and so does Ghanaian national law. But they made the point that in many cultures, e.g. cocoa growing communities in Ghana, the accepted cut-off point is younger, and a 'child' is defined as being aged 12 years or under.

The children were asked about what they thought their rights were. They had presumably had this kind of discussion before and said things like the right to health, to education, and even the right to work! They introduced the idea that children have the right to be protected and cared for, and that “child labour” is injurious to this right. They distinguished between unacceptable “child labour” and acceptable “child work”.

  • “Child work” is work that is limited to a few hours a day, and supervised by responsible adults. It includes doing household chores, learning your parent’s trade, and working at school under the supervision of teachers (e.g. cleaning and sweeping, or tending the school garden).
  • “Child labour” is excessive work, unsupervised work, and work that interferes with education and development or exploits the child.

They used the example of the same task, carrying a “size 34 bucket” of water, being performed by a six year old, a twelve year old, and an eighteen year old. As one young person stood up and said: “Child work should be what I can do. But if I am six years old, I cannot carry this big bucket of water.”

That was fairly clear to everyone. Then they went through various kinds of work on cocoa farms, exploring what is permissible work and what is unacceptable labour, divided up by the child’s age.

No one under the age of 18 is supposed to use a large cutlass (a machete) for weeding, or cutting cocoa pods down from trees, or for splitting pods open. Nor should they be present on the farm when there is spraying of fertiliser and fungicides, essential for fending off the pests and diseases that plague cocoa farming. There was lots of discussion around using machetes and spraying chemicals in the workshop, as these were clearly the most problematic recommendations.

Many teenagers in Ghana use cutlasses for a variety of tasks, including preparing food. One child stood up and said: “It is normal for us to use the cutlass.” The facilitators said that they are trying to encourage children to use mallets to break open cocoa pods, rather than cutlasses. While they did not concede that children should be using cutlasses, they also did not push this point any further. Everyone seemed to agree that the 18-years-old cut off point for using the cutlass was fairly impractical. No one seems to have seen any of these mallets for sale or in operation.

One child asked “why must we leave the farm when there is spraying?” and this started a long discussion around the dangers of fertiliser and fungicide chemicals. While there a quiet admission that the cutlass point wasn’t worth pushing too much, the issue of spraying chemicals was very important.

The children challenged the idea that they or anyone else was in a position to dictate their rights to their own parents. They pointed out that their parents had very strong ideas about the right way to do things and it was not their place as children to challenge their elders. There followed a very productive discussion about how the children might go about “educating” their parents about fertiliser and fungicide chemicals.

The children are not in a position to come out and say: "No, that's wrong! They told me at Kids Camp!" Parents know best, they have been doing things their own way for some time, and the culture in Ghana is not such that they would take well to this kind of challenge from their children.

They discussed taking a softer approach and proceeding gradually. One example was that they often keep the buckets of chemicals in the house or in the bedroom. So the children could say to their parents: "Mum, do you know why we sneeze sometimes? We learnt about these chemicals at the Kids Camp in Kumasi, they are bad for us so we shouldn’t be breathing them in…"

The context of a child-focused Kids Camp at which the children were encouraged to speak out, after months or even years of work building up their capacity and confidence, meant that the facilitators responded to them as real social individuals, negotiating actively with their parents and peers as best they could. This suggests a more subtle reading of children's rights that respects what the children themselves actually think, might be a productive approach to tackling child labour issues in cocoa farming.

Tom Allen is Projects and Policy Manager for Trading Visions.