The problem with emotive words like child slavery is that the image it conjures is so repugnant that nobody wants to present a different perspective.

In a recent speech, Mr Nico Roozen, honorary president of the Solidaridad network, called for a tighter definition of the term.  

Mr Roozen believes there should be a clear understanding of the differences between child labour and child work. Child labour inherently bringing dangers or abuses were as child work often is a situation where a child is helping out the family.

I applaud Mr Roozen for stating what is perhaps an unpopular viewpoint. 

Earlier this year, I had two conversations about this topic with people in the industry. In both conversations, we agreed that real child labour and slavery should be considered separately from a child working with their family.

Having grown up on a farm, I was expected to help out from the age of 6. When I was 10 years old, I drove a tractor, albeit a tiny one with the power of a modern sewing machine.

In today’s world, health and safety and child services would never permit such activities to go forward, but on the other hand, I feel we are missing out on far more than we are getting. As a parent, I feel that my children have missed out by not sharing my experiences with a way of life of which I have such fond memories.

We were all expected to contribute to the family. That seems healthy, doesn’t it? Would I have been better off sat in front of a TV playing computer games?

Despite that, I cannot agree with everything Mr Roozen said. During his speech, he mentions Tony’s Chocolonely as a company that perpetuates a negative image of child slavery in the chocolate industry so as to support their marketing campaigns.

That description reduces Tony’s Chocolonely’s existence to a cynical & simplistic message.  While there is some truth in what Mr Roozen says, it feels like blaming your anti-virus software for taking advantage of the existence of malware, when instead we should focus on eradicating the cause. Aside from that, I believe Tony’s Chocolate is a smart enough company to thrive even if slavery was solved tomorrow.

who else will do the work children are doing now?

Nico Roozen

I wonder if Mr Roozen reads my newsletter since this was the exact point I wrote about earlier.  We share his sentiments. Westerners are prone to clinging to lazily held beliefs that problems are all the result of first-order events. The outcome of A is due to B. We omit secondary or tertiary factors because they complicate the message.

You don’t fix a school’s failing performance by closing it down.  You consider the unique circumstances that contributed to the poor results, and you work on improving the conditions that caused it. 

Calculations of the cost of production must include not only the farmer’s living wage but also the total cost of production including hired labour.  Economic problems are the real issue, not moral ones. 

West Africa is undoubtedly suffering some reputational damage as a result of the negative publicity surrounding child labour in the region.  Businesses do not want their products associated with products produced using child labour. 

There is no doubt that the leaders of these African nations would like to eradicate child labour, but arresting traffickers will not solve the problem without an economic solution.

According to Mr Roozen, Modernization is Key. He cites the following examples:

  • hiring permanent and seasonal workers
  • mechanisation/technology
  • growth of a service provider businesses
  • agri-finance tailored to meet the needs of the sector
  • addressing scale through appropriation or re-allotment

But it was his comments on ‘Political Dynamics’ that caught my attention since this is where the most difficulties lie. Here’s a simple truth. Countries that export cocoa are only able to pay farmers what they will be able to make from selling it. Unless they are extremely inefficient with the use of funds, we are not paying them enough.

With only a few large chocolate buyers competing on historically low prices, the dynamic of market forces in this sector does not easily allow for a premium price. Here’s what Roozen says on the subject:

Firstly, mobilizing consumers through fair trade and organic; secondly, committing companies through Corporate Social Responsibility concepts, and thirdly, sector-wide approaches through Roundtable processes.

Again, we are respectful of Solidaridad’s experience in this sector, but I would like clarification about what he has to say about Fair Trade and Organic. Roozen is the founder of the ‘Fair Trade’ organization Max Havelaar, but today that term has been captured by the UK organization FairTrade, which has been incredibly successful, but which presents an expensive way to achieve CSR goals. I would prefer to see Fair Trade associations that are less focused on brand development, although it could be argued that this is what makes them successful.

Second, I’m not convinced that organic will work at scale. This is a premium product category.

He mentioned committing companies to CSR. I agree with him, though that is a significant challenge, as companies tend to do CSR based on what looks good, which often results in a weak implementation that enables them to boast, but which has limited real effect on the ground. 

Roozen may want to add another strategy to the list – lobbying. It’s no secret that chocolate companies lobby. A Solidaridad representative at the table where politicians, lawmakers, and policy advocates discuss strategy and draft new legislation would be a useful long-term investment.

Mr Roozen’s speech is a welcome dialogue into the industry’s most difficult topics, and he covers more than we have written about here. You can read about it on their website.

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