How Do We End Child Labor? Start by Addressing Corporate Capitalism

This Friday, June 12th, is World Day Against Child Labor. It’s a day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness around child labor – an issue that, like so many other issues caused by poverty and inequity, is even greater in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hershey, Nestle, Starbucks, and probably your favorite fast fashion company—all are tied to child labor in their supply chains. If that’s all you need to take action, skip to the conclusion. Otherwise, read on for the extent of the global problem—including here in the U.S.—and the root causes.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were an estimated 152 million children engaged in child labor globally. Almost half (48%) of them were between the ages of 5-11.  It’s easy to skim over big numbers like that. Statistics have a way of rushing us along to the next fact. But take a minute to consider the 5-year olds you know, the 8-year olds, the 11-year-olds. Imagine them working long days, most likely in farming (that’s where 71% of child labor happens). While plenty of farm kids do chores, there is a difference between those chores (sometimes referred to as “child work” amongst people who work on these issues) and the child labor we’re talking about here. Children can learn valuable skills working alongside their parents. Chores can be a way of passing on knowledge, history, and culture—but child labor is something different entirely.

Advocates define child labor as work that interferes with a child’s ability to be a kid. Wielding a machete or running dangerous equipment, handling agrochemicals, or other dirty or dangerous tasks all fit into the definition of child labor. So does any work that interferes with a child’s ability to attend school. In short, child labor is work which “by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children,” according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Some ways to take action

Poverty is a Key Cause of Child Labor

One of the key causes of child labor is poverty. Farming families who are struggling to make ends meet may be unable to pay for workers and have their own children do the job instead. Or they may be forced to make ends meet by having children work for pay on other farms. Many children end up working because they lack access to free schooling. A United Nations report points out that that lack of access to schooling is due to our global priorities, estimating that universal education for the world’s children would run between $10-30 billion. That’s about 0.7-2.0% of annual global military spending.

Child labor is most prevalent in countries that have been heavily impacted by colonialism throughout the centuries. Those colonial powers started out extracting agricultural goods (coffee, cotton, sugar, gold), and today that extraction continues. Development loans from entities like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) often end up worsening the situation for the people living in the countries that receive them. Loans often include “structural adjustments” that push local governments to cut health care, education, and other programs. All these cuts harm children and increase the pressure driving them to child labor.

Fast Fashion Fuels Child Labor

Multinational corporations are part of the problem as well—and a big part. Fast fashion brands churn out cheap clothes—and use children’s labor at every step of the long, complex supply chain. Children pollinate and pick cotton, where they are exposed to toxic insecticides and forced to work long hours. Children also run the spinning machines to make the yarn for clothes, as well as laboring long days doing fine detailed tasks like sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, embroidering and sewing on sequins. Teenage girls in India’s spinning mills tell of working 12-hour days with no breaks for lunch or to use the bathroom. All this to keep down the cost of this season’s latest trends Now with COVID-19, fast fashion companies are under fire for leaving garment workers without factory jobs or pay.

Child Labor is On the Rise on Cocoa Farms

Google “chocolate” and “child labor” comes up just below “chocolate cake”—that’s how intertwined the two are. Nearly 20 years ago, major chocolate companies like Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle pledged to eliminate child labor in their supply chains. They missed deadlines in 2005, 2008, and 2010. They’re coming up on another one this year, even as a forthcoming report1 finds that they’re about to miss it by a long shot. Child labor in the main cocoa-producing countries of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire has increased 13% and the percentage of children doing *hazardous* labor also increased. While researchers point to the complexity of the problem, one thing is clear: chocolate companies continue to be very profitable, and cocoa farmers continue to earn very little. Before the pandemic, cocoa farming families in West Africa earned an average of just $0.78 per day. Meanwhile, as we’ve pointed out before, Hershey’s extracted $1.15 billion in profits in 2019. Pledges and programs continue to multiply across the cocoa industry. Yet the chocolate industry as a whole is moving in the wrong direction as prices fall and cocoa farmers continue to claim a smaller piece of the price of the final bar. Their share of the price a chocolate bar? Just 6.6% in 2015, down from 15% in 1980. Until chocolate companies pay farmers fairly, these pledges remain just empty words.

Weak Corporate Certifications Are Not Solving the Problem

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the news, an investigation found children as young as 8 years old picking coffee destined for Starbucks and Nespresso. The reporting describes “children working 40-hour weeks in grueling conditions, picking coffee for a daily wage little more than the price of a latte.” Starbucks was quick to distance themselves from the news, pointing to their own C.A.F.E. Practices audits and their “zero tolerance” policy for child labor. They also noted that they had not purchased from the farms in question in the most recent harvest, or would not in the future. The playbook of denial and distancing was not so different from when forced labor was found on Brazilian plantations selling to Starbucks multiple times last year. Yet the “C.A.F.E. Practices” standards that Starbucks holds up as evidence of their ethical purchasing are weak, as noted in the International Guide to Fair Trade Standards. In an industry known for extreme price volatility, they lack a minimum price requirement and leave it up to “the market” to determine premiums. These ongoing revelations underscore the fact that these company Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs are not up to actually supporting fair livelihoods and safety for farm families.

Child Labor is a U.S. Problem Too

As a U.S.-based organization, it’s important to point out that child labor is not just something that happens outside our borders. An estimated 500,000 children work on farms across the U.S., doing long days of backbreaking labor. And it is perfectly legal. Under federal labor law, children as young as 12 can legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size as long as they have parental permission and don’t miss school. And U.S. law permits children working in agriculture to do hazardous work at 16 (the age is 18 for non-farm work). More child workers die in agriculture than in any other industry in the U.S. Bills have repeatedly been introduced to Congress—and elected officials have failed to act on them. As one advocate asked,”Why must we rely on children to harvest fruits and vegetables in America? Why must Latino children bear the brunt of unjust laws?  The child labor exemptions in U.S. labor law constitute a de facto form of discrimination and why allow young children to work in what is the most dangerous industry?  These loopholes have been around since the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.  Isn’t it time to protect all our children equally?”

As is true around the world, one of the main causes of child labor in the U.S. is poverty. The families who tend the fields and grow our nations’ food struggle to put food on their own tables. One investigation into child labor in the onion fields in Texas found that 81% of households were food insecure.

While some states may have higher minimum wages, U.S. law exempts farmworkers from minimum wage requirements. That’s due to a loophole carved out when our current labor law was written. At the time, farmworkers were mostly Black and powerful landowners and Southern legislators struck a deal to exclude farmworkers from many protections including minimum wage laws, overtime, and rights to join a union. While some of those laws have changed along the way, too many remain. The U.S. also remains an outlier in the global legal framework, remaining one of just a handful of countries who has not signed onto the ILO Convention 138, which sets a minimum age for work. The U.S. also refuses to sign onto a number of ILO conventions, including ones protecting collective bargaining rights, equal pay, and forced labor.

Global Capitalism Drives Child Labor

It would be foolhardy to say that ending child labor is simple. To end child labor, we need to end poverty. Meanwhile, global capitalism is built on exploiting workers and extracting profits from farmers, especially Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. That is true in the U.S. and it is true across the world. To end child labor will require a transformation of the systems that are based on cheap food and exploitation into a world that values the lives and livelihoods of families. Are we up to the challenge?

Chocolate companies continue to make more pledges. Just this week, Hershey announced a new monitoring program to track and address child labor in their supply chains. Yet instead of paying farmers fairly for their cocoa as a first step, they focus on “Diversifying income at the household level and educating families on the value of savings.” It’s insulting to suggest that the reason that farmers who earn just $0.78 per day are poor is because they don’t understand the value of savings. Or that perhaps farmers just need to get another job and “diversify” their income instead of a company that extracted $1.15 billion in profits in 2019 paying fair prices for their cocoa.  Paying farmers fairly is not the only thing needed to end poverty, but to continue to develop and release plans to end poverty without that basic step is more marketing than anything else.

COVID-19 Makes the Problem Worse

COVID-19 has made more clear than ever the ways in which our food system puts profits ahead of peoples’ livelihoods. There are dire warnings that the increase in poverty plus shuttered schools will lead to an increase in child labor around the globe. While the full extent of the consequences is not yet clear, what is clear is that we urgently need to change.

To really end child labor, we need a fair food system that supports fair livelihoods for children and their families. A few action steps for today (and every day).

  • Send a message to Hershey’s telling them to put farmer livelihoods ahead of stakeholder profits.
  • Look for real fair trade products when you shop. Fair trade seeks to address the root causes of poverty both by setting minimum prices, and by supporting farmer cooperatives addressing the structural power imbalances that cause poverty in the first place.
  • Drop Starbucks a line calling out their ongoing problem with forced and child labor.
  • Skip the chocolate or coffee with labels like Rainforest Alliance, or company-owned seals that don’t guarantee minimum prices for farmers.
  • Skip fast fashion. That cheap t-shirt has a high price for the women and children who make it. Look for fair trade options instead.

1The as-yet untitled report is authored by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. The report was leaked to some press and NGOs earlier this spring.

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