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Migrants who work in the cocoa sector in Côte d’Ivoire but who are not originally from the country are among the most vulnerable to conditions that can be classified as forced labour, a report has found

Attention to human rights in the cocoa sector in West Africa has historically centred on the problem of child labour, which has long been known to be endemic in the industry. In recent years, however, a combination of increasing public awareness and intensifying international regulatory pressure has led to a heightened focus on the risk of forced labour – often termed ‘modern day slavery’ – in the sector.

A February 2019 report from Verité, found that while forced labour risk is present in the cocoa sector in Côte d’Ivoire, it appears to be limited primarily to a narrow group of people: recently arrived migrant workers.

In particular, those migrant workers from Burkina Faso, Mali, or non-cocoa producing areas of Côte d’Ivoire (and their children, if also working) who have recruitment-related debt and are relatively early (first two to three years) in their employment tenure appear to the most vulnerable to forced labour. Migrant workers in the cocoa sector may be adults or children; both are potentially at risk of forced labour.

Verité researchers found evidence that such migrant workers may experience deception during recruitment, debt bondage linked to debt incurred in the course of their recruitment, delayed or non-payment of wages, and conditions of multiple dependency on their employers for housing, food, or access to credit, all of which are indicators of forced labour risk.

Compounding factors

Potential elements that may compound the forced labour risk faced by recent migrants and other vulnerable workers were also identified in the Verité study. Such compounding factors include working in a remote area, lack of formal education and/ or low level of literacy, and the absence of local systems or resources for workers to address concerns or issues arising during their employment.

A statistically representative study by Tulane University and Walk Free Foundation in 2018 estimated that 0.42 per cent of adults working in cocoa experienced forced labour in Côte d’Ivoire between 2013 and 2017. The same study found that 0.17 per cent of children working in cocoa agriculture in the country were forced to work by someone other than a parent.

Although percentages are low relative to the overall population, the very large number of people involved in cocoa production in the country means that victims likely number in the thousands. Given the hidden nature of much human trafficking and forced labour, it is also possible that levels may be significantly higher within isolated pockets in the sector.

In late 2016, at the request of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) and two of its major private sector members, Verité researchers undertook rapid appraisal research to explore the nature of forced labour risk in the cocoa sector in Côte d’Ivoire. The study did not seek to document the overall level of forced labour in the sector, but instead to identify and qualitatively describe the nature of the specific indicators of forced labour that appear to be most relevant in the Ivoirian context.

Verité based the methodology for the research on the definition of forced labour and methodological guidance on forced labour research provided by the International Labor Organization (ILO).  Using the ILO’s forced labour indicator framework, the Verité study focused on identifying specific risk factors for forced labour faced by cocoa workers, sharecroppers, and primary producers in Côte d’Ivoire. The study also explored the root causes and contextual factors that contribute to forced labour vulnerability in the sector.

Verité said that given the hidden nature of much human trafficking and forced labour, it is also possible that levels may be significantly higher within isolated pockets in the sector. It believes that there is a clear need for government, industry, and civil society actors working in the sector in Côte d’Ivoire to better understand the issue of forced labour and take steps to address the root causes of the problem when and where it occurs.

“Researchers found evidence that migrant workers may experience deception during recruitment about the working conditions they can expect, including the hours they will be required to work, the earnings they will receive, and the length of employment that may be required of them, among other factors,” Verité said.

Migrants may incur debt

“Migrants may also have debt linked to their recruitment and transportation, and this debt may serve to bind them to the workplace even if they find the working conditions unacceptable or wish to leave.

“When these low base wages are combined with wage deductions – including some with inflated interest – for items such as food, medical care, or recruitment transportation costs, workers may end up being paid significantly less than promised or not paid at all.” In some cases, workers may have to continue to work beyond the period originally expected in order to access their earnings.

Verité found that potential elements that may compound the forced labour risk faced by recent migrants of the type highlighted above appear to further inhibit some workers – particularly young or otherwise less aware workers – from leaving unacceptable work situations to return home or seek alternate opportunities. “While these compounding factors do not in themselves indicate forced labour, they should be considered in relation to each other and to the presence of any forced labour indicators in determining overall level of forced labour risk,” said the authors of the report.

Hired workers are engaged by either producers or sharecroppers and may be engaged for periods ranging from one day to one year, with the highest use of hired labour occurring during the harvest season. Hired workers may be local or migrant Ivoirians (with migrant Ivoirians typically coming from the northern region of the country, where cocoa is not grown), or they may be transnational migrants from Mali or Burkina Faso. Very short-term workers tend to be local, while workers engaged for a longer period tend to be migrants.

Family labour (that is unpaid family members of the producer or sharecropper) is the most significant source of labour used on cocoa farms, but family members of producers or sharecroppers may also be engaged as hired or contracted labour, leading to significant grey areas between the two categories.

Adding to debt loads Wage rates vary but were reported as relatively standard and stable at the time of research: CFA 150,000 – 200,000 per year (US$242.88 – 323.88) for annual workers or CFA 2,000 – 3,000 per day (US$3.24 – 4.86) for daily workers. The exception is new migrant workers from non-cocoa producing areas of Côte d’Ivoire or neighbouring countries, who are reportedly paid as little as CFA 75,000 (US$121.44) for a year’s work.

Annual salaries are typically paid at the end of the harvest and this is culturally accepted. Workers may also receive food, housing, medicine, and some cash advances as needed. There is some risk that the provision of these benefits – which are often perceived by workers to be an advantage associated with cocoa work – can contribute to significant debt loads that could potentially be exploited to extract labour in the case of unscrupulous employers. Risk of such exploitation is higher for child migrants or others with heightened general vulnerability, such as workers in remote areas.

Workers may seek employment themselves through family networks or through third-party intermediaries. If they go through third-party intermediaries, they may incur debt related to their recruitment and transport, which they must then work off. This can take nearly the entirety of the first year and, in some cases, workers may work for multiple years before they receive standard wages.

Hired migrant workers may also work for a season or multiple seasons without or at low rates of pay because a producer has promised they will eventually be granted access to a parcel of land for farming or sharecropping; such promises may or may not be honoured.

Children who are working for their parents, such as on a family farm, do not meet the definition of forced child labour under the ILO framework. However, if children are working as a result of their parents being victims of forced labour, they would be considered to be in forced labour as well.

Field research did not find evidence that forced recruitment – such as abduction – is occurring currently.

How to respond?

In response to the issues that the research for the report found, and with support from the International Cocoa Initiative and in consultation with a range of industry, government, and civil society actors, Verité developed a set of comprehensive recommendations.

Four categories of action are suggested:

  • Establishing robust systems to monitor, remediate, and prevent forced labour
  • Strengthening underlying supply chain infrastructure
  • Improving data collection and reporting of forced labour risk factors
  • Facilitating accountability and independent verification.

For each, Verité recommended specific actions for the Government of Côte d’Ivoire and private sector companies, as well as the role that civil society organizations can play to support the efforts of government and business to identify, address, and prevent forced labour risk. Some guidance is also provided on development of programming and suggested phasing of interventions. The recommendations can be found here: .■ C&CI

This article that first appeared in the May ’19 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read the article in full and other informative articles in the current and future issues of C&CI.

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