Tackling Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector: An Industry Viewpoint of a Work in Progress

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Author Tim McCoy

Vice President for Country Relations
World Cocoa Foundation

The world observes Valentine’s Day with chocolate, an occasion that often prompts questions about  unacceptable and illegal child labor in the cocoa supply chain. Effectively rooting out child labor in the cocoa sector is an enormous and complicated challenge. There are approximately two million cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana representing 10 million children. We now know that child labor is both a symptom and a self-perpetuating cause of poverty. Households in cocoa growing areas face the realities of rural poverty, and some parents have little choice but to put their children to work, and keep them out of school, to reduce labor costs on family farms. This often, in turn, deprives children of the chance to develop and advance themselves, and so entrenches the household’s impoverishment for subsequent generations.

Achieving success in the fight against child labor in the cocoa sector is a shared responsibility that requires the time and talent of all interested parties, including cocoa-growing communities, governments in cocoa producing nations, the chocolate and cocoa industry, and chocolate-consuming nations around the world. Two decades into this effort, these stakeholders are redoubling efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa sector. They have learned that overnight success is elusive, but have not abandoned a goal that represents both a moral imperative and a cornerstone for the future sustainability of the sector.

A Look Back

Since 2001, a handful of chocolate and cocoa companies have been working with the U.S. government, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and civil society to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in cocoa. Seventeen years ago, when the partnership began, structures necessary for tackling a phenomenon, which transcends national boundaries and touches on diverse and highly complex supply chains, not to mention remote family-owned and operated farms, simply did not exist. While it may appear to some that progress has been slow, huge strides have been made in better understanding the issue and in jointly formulating solutions.

The chocolate and cocoa industry initially struggled with the measured, practical steps necessary to achieve substantial reductions in the worst forms of child labor among children on cocoa farms. A first step was the establishment of International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) as an operationally-grounded clearinghouse of good practice, an entity which has since served both the industry and its partners in defining, evolving, and implementing effective strategies to tackle child labor in cocoa.

In 2010, under the Harkin-Engel Protocol Framework of Action, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, the U.S. Department of Labor and a number of companies with U.S. operations jointly committed to reducing the worst forms of child labor by undertaking a series of practical steps in the cocoa-growing regions of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by 2020.  These include:

  • Establishing child labor monitoring and remediation systems in the cocoa supply chain.
  • Remediation through education, vocational training and livelihood support.
  • Development of physical and social infrastructures.
  • Improving farmer incomes, especially considering most of cocoa in West Africa is grown on small, family-owned farms.

In the early 2010s, as part of the Framework of Action, individual companies and the governments demonstrated increased resolve to work more closely together on actions to fight child labor, both through individual programs and other activities that included some degree of collaboration. However, progress and transfer of learnings between committed entities remained slow.

A major step forward in accelerating the learnings on industry’s part was hammered out in a series of meetings and working sessions which resulted in CocoaAction, an unprecedented effort to share information, best practices, and the same core interventions across the cocoa supply chains of nine key chocolate and cocoa companies in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

In looking back across the past 17 years, it is possible to see how, at the beginning of this journey, most stakeholders neither understood the real magnitude of the worst forms of child labor nor how to address them.  Since then, undeniable progress has been made, such as:

  • Near-universal awareness — on the part of West African governments, within cocoa-farming communities, and within the chocolate and cocoa industry — that the worst forms of child labor exist and must be eliminated.
  • Acceptance of shared responsibility among all stakeholders, and especially among those who signed the original Harkin-Engel Protocol and the follow-on Framework of Action.
  • Establishment of mutually respectful and trusting partnerships among stakeholders.
  • A growing understanding, now translated into on-the-ground activities, among all stakeholders that holistic, child-centered community development, women’s empowerment and improved access to education are all key elements in ending the worst forms of child labor.
  • Acceptance that all stakeholders have a role to play in ensuring quality education for children in cocoa-growing communities.

Where We Are Now

Through CocoaAction, nine chocolate and cocoa companies* have committed to eradicating the worst forms of child labor within their own supply chains. Many experts on child labor believe that the supply chain focus is essential to demonstrating how success can best be achieved. Practically, the supply chain is where industry players have resources, know the players, the traders, and the farmer cooperatives that supply cocoa, and the supply chain approach has gained legitimacy in the international legal arena through increased attention focused on supply chain-based human rights due diligence.

Beginning in 2016, CocoaAction companies started to do more than ever before to share and learn from each other and other experts on objectives that are well aligned with the Harkin-Engel Framework of Action and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) surrounding community development. By the end of 2016, CocoaAction companies were implementing community development activities in their supply chains.

Greater visibility into a company’s supply chain affords that company with a better understanding of what is taking place at the farm, coop, and community levels. When this occurs in the context of a child labor monitoring and remediation system, CocoaAction companies are more favorably positioned to identify and remediate cases of the worst forms of child labor, as well as to direct targeted investments in community development that tackle some of child labor’s root causes.

In addition to, and in support of companies’ CocoaAction commitments, ICI has achieved remarkable success since it was established in 2002 under the auspices of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. This includes using more than $70 million in funding from the chocolate and cocoa since 2007 to reach 600 communities in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, leading to enhanced protection for approximately 700,000 children.  ICI, which is a multi-stakeholder partnership between civil society, governments, farmer organizations, and industry, has served as industry’s point of reference for the strategic design and technical implementation of CocoaAction’s child labor and community development components. Learn more about ICI’s multi-stakeholder approach to achieving tangible results on the ground.

A Look Ahead

While progress, such as that represented by CocoaAction and ICI, has been real, now is not the time to rest on laurels. We know that too many children remain involved in the worst forms of child labor. The supply chains of a handful of companies reach only a fraction of the entire cocoa-growing population of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. We are also aware of the fact that the cocoa sector is currently experiencing difficulties in terms of price that have not been seen in many years, threatening to reverse some of the progress made since 2002.


Over the past 17 years, a key segment of the chocolate and cocoa industry, as well as the three governments and civil society, have learned much by working together to achieve the difficult goal of eradicating the worst forms of child labor in the Ivorian and Ghanaian cocoa sector. Although reaching our goal might have been more ambitious than we realized in 2010, we can still tell our story – that we recognized an enormous problem affecting the future of millions of children, studied it, engaged experts and, realizing there was no simple formula or roadmap for children in these rural communities across countries, we created our own roadmap. We did that through trial and error, learnings, action steps, research, partnerships across different sectors, and maintaining a firm resolve over these last 17 years.

*The WCF member companies committed to CocoaAction include Barry CallebautBlommerCargillFerreroThe Hershey CompanyMars, IncorporatedMondelēz InternationalNestlé, and Olam.