Proof of child labor in cocoa plantations in West Africa became public knowledge in the late 1990s. This followed press reports documenting the existence of hazardous child labor on cocoa plantations. Pressure on the cocoa industry to end child labor has grown steadily since then, particularly from civil society and more recently from US and EU regulators.
To meet consumer demand for more sustainable and ethical cocoa, the industry began using certification programs in the late 2000s. Certification labels, such as Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade, aim, among other things, to guarantee cocoa produced without recourse to child labor.
It is estimated that between a third and a half of cocoa sold worldwide is currently certified.
In September 2001, by ratifying the Harkin-Engel protocol, the cocoa industry has pledged to reduce the most dangerous forms of child labor by 70% by 2020. Yet CÃ´te d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, is still struggling. with child labor in its cocoa plantations.
Indeed, the number of children under 18 working in cocoa farms (certified or not) increased between 2013 and 2019, reaching about 790,000. It is believed that 97% of them are engaged in some of the most dangerous jobs, including land clearing, harvesting cocoa with a machete or applying agrochemicals in cocoa plantations.
My new research paper focusing on certified cocoa farmers in CÃ´te d’Ivoire argues that the actual number of child laborers is likely even higher, as child labor measures can be biased. The results also suggest that certification does not work as expected when it comes to child labor.
Child labor in cocoa
I have found that the prevalence of child labor is probably underestimated by studies conducted by both researchers and the cocoa industry. This is due to a concept called social desirability bias which occurs when people are reluctant to provide completely truthful answers on sensitive topics for fear of negative consequences.
In the case of child labor in Ivorian cocoa plantations, certified farmers can lie about their addiction to child labor because any type of child labor is prohibited by the certification programs to which they belong. Hazardous work is also prohibited by national law.
Fear of legal, social or economic repercussions probably leads certified farmers to under-report their use of child labor. This makes it more difficult to accurately measure the extent of the problem and adopt effective policies to combat it.
The prevalence of the use of child labor estimated using the indirect measure is twice as high as that of the direct questioning. Using list experiences, I find that between 21% and 25% of the cocoa farmers surveyed were dependent on child labor in the past 12 months, depending on the type of work involved. This difference suggests that at least half of Ivorian cocoa farmers who use child labor on their certified farms are unwilling to admit it.
Why dependence on children
The main factors are the failures of the labor markets, the lack of school infrastructure and the difficulties in controlling the use of child labor by certified cocoa farmers, mainly due to the remoteness of the farms.
Cocoa production requires a significant amount of physical labor, as many tasks associated with growing cocoa are not mechanized. In addition, since cocoa prices in CÃ´te d’Ivoire are set seasonally, the only way for farmers to increase their cocoa-generated income is to increase their production. This requires an increased workforce.
At the same time, Ivorian cocoa plantations tend to be clustered in cocoa communities. This means that local adult labor is scarce because most able-bodied adults are employed in their own cocoa farms and do not seek labor on other farms.
This labor market failure – more workers are needed precisely where they are not available – makes more cocoa farmers dependent on child labor. This phenomenon is even more important when cocoa plantations are located in remote communities with difficult access to roads. The recourse to child labor by cocoa producers is then partly due to the shortage of adult labor. This result is further confirmed by the fact that the presence of an additional adult in a cocoa household reduced the probability of being dependent on child labor by up to 4%.
I have also found that the prevalence of child labor is higher on more remote farms, which may be explained by weaker law enforcement in these areas, fewer available adult workers, and limited opportunities for them. children to go to school due to a lack of school infrastructure.
Taken together, these results strongly suggest that rates of child labor, and potentially other sensitive topics, are not measured accurately. In addition, they show that the issue of child labor remains endemic in CÃ´te d’Ivoire, even in cocoa plantations certified without child labor.
Understanding the various reasons behind farmers’ continued use of child labor and their reluctance to admit that this use is an important first step in designing more effective policies. By factoring in the phenomenon of social desirability bias in future research, governments and development partners can lead to more precise measures of the problem and inform more effective policy-making.