Child Slavery, Child Labour, Hazardous Work—What’s the Difference?

Benjamin Smith International Labour Organization

Author Benjamin Smith

Senior Officer, Child Labour
International Labour Organization
Students in a classroom in West Africa. Photo by International Cocoa Initiative.

With new estimates of child labour in cocoa production showing there are still high levels of child labour in cocoa growing communities in West Africa, the chocolate and confectionery industry is under renewed scrutiny.

People want to know why, after so many years and so much investment, are we still struggling with this problem? What can be done differently?

Important questions, and a renewed debate is very much needed. Fortunately, clear definitions of child labour and forced labour exist that provide a common understanding. It is a good time to review these basic concepts.

The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or
  • interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), defines these as:

a) slavery, debt bondage, trafficking and similar practices

b) the use, procurement or offering of a child for commercial sexual exploitation

c) illicit activities, such as drug trafficking

d) work which, by its nature (e.g., lifting heavy loads or spraying pesticides) or the circumstances in which it is carried out (e.g., working for long hours or at high temperatures), puts their health, safety or morals at risk–known as “hazardous work”.

A big worry in cocoa production is with regard to hazardous work. It’s a global challenge. There are 73 million children globally in hazardous work. Add to this children doing work for which they are simply too young, about 79 million, and we have the shocking total number of children around the world in child labour: 152 million.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of children could fall into extreme poverty this year.  There is a serious risk that child labour will increase, including in cocoa growing areas.

Of course, not all work that children do is child labour. Earning pocket money after school when above the minimum age to work or doing normal household chores are generally regarded as being something positive.

What about forced labour? Using a separate methodology than the one used for child labour, ILO estimates that there are 4.3 million children in forced labour around the world. Three million of them are in forced labour in the private sector, one million are in commercial sexual exploitation, and 300,000 are in state-imposed forced labour.

ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) defines forced labour as “work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. When calculating prevalence, children are considered to be in forced labour if:

  • they are working for a third party (other than their parents), under threat of any penalty applied by the third party, either on the children directly, or on their parents
  • they are working for or with their parents, who are in forced labour, or
  • they are in a worst form of child labour other than hazardous work (a), b), and c), from Convention No. 182, above)

These definitions matter because if we assume the main problem is child slavery, when in reality the huge majority of children are working within their families, driven by poverty, we will miss the mark.

Make no mistake, prosecution of traffickers, and rescue and rehabilitation of child victims of forced labour are vital. Much greater effort is needed to end child trafficking, a gross violation of children’s rights.

But to break the functional dependency of many cocoa farms on child labour, we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of securing decent work for parents that provides an adequate income, and universal quality education for children.

No one acting alone can achieve the needed change. In countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, Ecuador and Indonesia, national action plans on child labour have been developed through social dialogue among governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations. They are based on solid evidence, good practice and international labour standards. By embedding its efforts in such nationally owned strategies, the chocolate industry can benefit from stronger coordination and cooperation, and contribute to sustainable solutions.