Child labour in cocoa from a European ‘doughnut’ perspective

This blog was written by Dorte Thorsen and James Sumberg, and first appeared on the ACHA website

Much attention is being given to how best to resurrect economic activity as the COVID-19 crisis subsides. The upheaval caused by the pandemic and the serious threat of climate change are drawing attention to new approaches to planning, economics and sustainability. With attention focusing on local and global issues, the question is at which scale these approaches can be applied?

According to the Guardian, politicians and planners in Amsterdam are set to embrace the so-called ‘doughnut’ model of a sustainable economy. The model suggests that a sustainable economy can be envisaged as a doughnut, the inner boundary of which represents the minimum needed for social sustainability, while the outer boundary represents the limit of ecological sustainability. The idea is that an economy that operates in the space between these boundaries will be both socially just and ecologically sustainable.

Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Marieke van Doornick, believes that the transformations needed to move into this social and ecological safe operating space require the city not only to address local issues but also issues in the countries with which Amsterdam does business. For example, she suggests that the port of Amsterdam could refuse to accept or store any produce associated with exploitative labour practices.

As Amsterdam is the major point of entry for cocoa imports into Europe, this could significantly disrupt trade in this important commodity, as West African cocoa is regularly linked to child labour. But does such an ambitious approach to local economic transformation risk undermining the social and ecological sustainability of a larger, international doughnut? While, it is appealing to advocate for social justice everywhere, for the particular case of cocoa there are two issues that cast doubt on whether the approach being suggested for Amsterdam will truly achieve its objectives.

Labour, work and harm

First, the label ‘child labour’ is not as straightforward as it seems. The definition has evolved over the years; from including all productive activities to equating child labour with paid employment, and thus distinctly different from unpaid work within the family. Currently, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) delimits child labour as work that harms children’s and adolescents’ health and personal development or deprives them of schooling. Under certain conditions, some work outside school hours and during school holidays – at home, in a family business or for wages – is acknowledged by ILO as positive and is not considered as child labour.

It is however very difficult to assess what work is harmful and in what ways. Physical harm to a child’s health will depend on what tasks s/he is involved in, the frequency of specific tasks and exposure to chemical hazards such as pesticides, and on the age, size and strength of the child. Psychological and emotional harm is equally difficult to assess and will depend on the cultural values ascribed to work and the relationships between adults and working children.

Often conceptualisations of harm brim with cultural and moral notions of what a child should and should not do, which do not necessarily translate across borders. For example, advocacy to end child labour in cocoa regularly features photographs of children using a machete to crack open cocoa pods, with the suggestion that any such activity is hazardous. In West Africa, however, it is common for 12-15-year olds to work alongside their parents on the family farm using hoes, sickles and machetes. Many children will also farm a small plot of their own.

Assessing harm to a child’s personal development is equally problematic. Evidence shows that many children and adolescents take great pride in working to support themselves and to contribute to family welfare. Importantly, being banned from work does not necessarily bring children back into education but may actually prevent their re-entry if they were working to pay school fees or school-related expenses. The sense of obligation to help a parent, or the need to do so in the case of illness and death, may deprive an adolescent of schooling, but his or her work may help younger siblings to remain in school. Incidences of child labour thus need to be understood in the broader family and social contexts. A narrow focus on the presence children in cocoa production may instigate a ban regardless of whether the work is harmful or not, and without recognising that a ban potentially reduces children’s integration in local economic and social relations.

The need for a fair price

Second, plans for socially just societies cannot address exploitation narrowly in terms of exploitative labour practices: the effects of broader production and trade relations on labour practices must also be considered. For example, global cocoa prices fluctuate significantly and have remained below US$ 2700 per metric ton for the past two years. These prices fail to secure many cocoa farmers a living income – to do so, according to the Cocoa Barometer (pdf), the minimum farm gate price needs to be US$ 3116 per metric ton in Ghana and US$ 3166 in Côte d’Ivoire.

A study in Ghana by researchers at the University of Arkansas suggests that a 2.8 per cent increase in the cocoa price would almost eliminate what is usually deemed the worst forms of child labour, while the price would need to increase by almost 12 per cent to reduce children’s working hours in cocoa to the level deemed acceptable by the Ghanaian government.

Evidence from Côte d’Ivoire reveals that despite the declining incomes, farmers continue to grow cocoa in part because they obtain fertilisers and pesticides through the cocoa growers’ organisation, which they can then use on their food crops. Any ban of cocoa by the port of Amsterdam because it is the fruit of child labour or other exploitative labour relations would have wide and significant ramifications for poor farm households in West Africa. In addition to reducing their cocoa income, such a ban would also reduce the productivity in food crops.

Social justice and sustainability are complex, and single issues such as child labour cannot be addressed in a meaningful way by the actions of a city or country. Broader structural, trade and political transformations are required to allow everyone – chocolate consumers in Amsterdam and cocoa villages in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire – to have a good life. From this perspective it is interesting and important to consider what the doughnut model of a sustainable economy might look like if the starting point were not Amsterdam, but a cocoa producing community in West Africa.

Cover photo: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture on Flickr.