Child labour not an economic problem

Increased school enrolment and attendance place
Increased school enrolment and attendance place governments in a better position to enforce children’s right to education. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Ghana and Ivory Coast, the two countries that supply 65 percent of the world’s cocoa beans, have announced a proposed floor price of $2,600 per tonne of cocoa beans as one of the efforts to help curb child labour.

Three years ago, the price per tonne was $3,200 but due to an oversupply the price plummeted to as low as $1,750. It’s argued that this price tank made it expensive for many poor cocoa farmers to afford hiring adult workers and therefore opted for their household child labour and also imported from neighbouring countries.

The proposed $2,600 minimum price is argued to be sufficient enough to help improve the livelihoods of poor family and deter them from using child labour supply.

To provide a picture of the scale of the vice, it’s estimated that about 1.6 million children work in cocoa production in Ivory Coast and Ghana. However, the accuracy of this figure is in doubt as child labour is often clandestine, making it difficult to accurately quantify.

School enrolment and attendance is used as the reliable proxy measure but children who neither attend school nor work, or work home-based like caring for siblings and housework, are factored in the Child Labour-School Attendance equation whilst children who attend school but also work in cocoa farms are factored out.


Back to the issue of the $2,600 floor price, the crux of the matter is that the two countries are deploying economics as a solution to the problem by price out child labour supply as a cheap substitute to adult labour supply. But is pricing out a solution in helping curb child labour supply?

We can try and look at it from a conscription angle because it’s a twin bridesmaid of child labour. In Sudan where the country is currently facing a leadership turmoil, the Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries are accused of using child soldiers.

The Rapid Support Forces boast of 50,000 soldiers and are heavily financed by the State and external partners. So, can it be argued that an increase in salaries and perks for the soldiers can price out child soldiers?

Back to child labour, there is a body of evidence that shows the relationship between poverty and child labour is not a simple cause-and-effect. It is well documented in many countries where child labour is rampant that income shocks is what mainly impacts school enrolments negatively.

For example in rural India, parents tend to withdraw their children from schools when facing a decline in crop income.

This is the similar case happening in Ghana and Ivory Coast, according to the proposed pricing intervention, cocoa growing families opt for child labour because of falling prices thus can’t afford adult labour. So, if this is the hypothesised problem then setting a high price for cocoa beans to price out child labour is not really the solution.

The problem is largely the failure to protect children from child labour as a criminal offence by the State. Now, to increase price of cocoa beans while failing to address that systemic problem, ideally, incentivizes farmers to continue using child labour to enjoy higher profit margins.

One of the best policy interventions to address the vice would be to increase school enrolment and attendance by providing school feeding programme at schools, as a safety net to the vulnerable families to declining cocoa prices.

Kenya for more than three decades now has used this strategy and its effect cannot be overstated. The programme has assisted and empowered children, families and communities on the access to education in rural areas.

With increased school enrolment and attendance, Ghana and Ivory Coast governments will be in a better position to enforce children’s right to education in family spaces that aid and abet child labour because providing such safety nets to vulnerable families to child labour disincentivise them to deploy child labour supply but encourage school attendance.