Should we stop talking about child labor in chocolate? An anthropologist’s critique

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Author Amanda Berlan

Associate Professor in Business & Sustainability
De Montfort University, UK

The issue of child labor in cocoa emerged more than 20 years ago and shows no signs of abatement. 2021 saw media stories regarding lawsuits and increasing numbers of child laborers, raising familiar questions in the public arena. What are chocolate companies doing? What chocolate should ethical consumers be buying? How can farmer incomes be increased so that child labor can be eradicated?

After more than two decades of academic research on cocoa, much of which has focused on child labor, and countless hours spent with child workers, farmers, their spouses, community leaders and many other stakeholders, I see limited value in some of these considerations. My view is that there are broader issues relating to child welfare that need to be confronted in order to achieve progress on the issue of child labor.

The typical narratives regarding child labor in chocolate range from condemning the perceived depravity of companies and farmers to making an awkward case for cultural relativism (‘farmers use their children because that’s how they grew up and that’s their culture’). My intention here is to illustrate that between these two positions lies a vast but largely underexplored space for a different kind of discussion.

My contention is that we need to focus on practical needs and viable solutions linked to broader child welfare issues in order to resolve the specific child labor problem. This is because in my experience, child labor in cocoa is caused by a variety of factors which do not appear on the radar of policymakers. For example, in rural Ghana, divorce is common and mothers raising children alone struggle to put one meal a day on the table and lack the means, education or easy mechanisms to claim support from the children’s biological fathers. This causes hardship and significantly increases the chance of a child ending up in the ILO-defined worst forms of child labor. Even parents who are still together struggle due to a lack of childcare options and face a difficult choice between taking their children to farm and leaving them unattended in the village. If a child suffers from chronic malnutrition and exhaustion, they will always choose the farm over school because the former offers access to water and fruit and no child can gain an adequate education, let alone thrive, in an educational environment if short of food and rest. Children facing the possibility of confronting a poisonous snake or scorpion in their daily life see machetes as their means of survival; therefore telling them the use of such tools on a cocoa farm endangers them and they can no longer use them is a hard proposition for them to accept.

This is where distinguishing between child labor and broader notions of child welfare is important. In the context of cocoa, child labor is not a violation of labor rights occurring in a social vacuum; it is symptomatic of a much wider set of issues relating to child welfare which, problematically, are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Poverty is often treated as the determining factors but many countries (such as the UK) have concerning levels of child poverty but not significant levels of child labor. This shows that certain variables can stop poverty leading to child labor. In keeping with this idea, we need to understand the specific factors impacting child labor in cocoa and this requires a nuanced, constructive and fact-based assessment of causality. In the communities where I worked practical measures such as having a school-feeding program, providing support to help women claim what they were due, having some sort of childcare provision, providing adequate footwear to children and providing anti-venom medication to communities were all steps which, in my opinion, would lead to an immediate drop in child labor in cocoa. While some may feel this is the role of government, this is where some of the multi-stakeholder partnerships that have become common in recent years could prove to be game-changing.

There is still a lot to learn about how we can tackle this difficult issue but adopting this approach is key to ensuring lasting positive change and without it, we face many more challenging years when it comes to resolving child labor in cocoa.