The Washington Post reported in a recent article that two U.S. senators have proposed a ban on importation of cocoa from the Ivory Coast to the U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ron Wyden of Oregon, are said to have made the proposal in reaction to the continued use of forced child labor on Ivorian cocoa farms. As evidence, they reportedly cited a June 2019 Washington Post article, which alleged that more than 2 million children have been working on West African cocoa farms.  

The Ivory Coast is the world’s leading cocoa producer, and an estimated two-thirds of the country’s annual trade revenue is derived from cocoa exports. Because the value of U.S. chocolate imports is the highest globally, the proposed ban would devastate the Ivorian economy. Consequently, the Ivorian government is making frantic efforts to prevent imposition of the ban.  

Complaints about child labor on West African cocoa farms have been ongoing for many years, but the latest action by the two senators is nothing short of a rush to judgment. The Washington Post journalists, whose article the senators based their proposal on, reported speaking with 12 child laborers on different Ivorian farms. They learned that the children, some as young as 13, had been trafficked from neighboring Burkina Faso to work on the farms for very little money. While that is a serious issue requiring urgent attention, the fact is that those are isolated cases, as argued by the Ivorian First lady Dominique Ouattara in her recent meeting with a U.S. Congressional delegation.

Indisputably, the overwhelming majority of children who work on West African cocoa farms do so on family farms. Their cases are no different from the thousands of American children, many as young as 5, who work on their parents’ farms. Because American agriculture is highly mechanized, some of these children operate heavy machinery, occasionally sustaining serious injuries. That risk is not a major concern on West African farms since most people there work with basic tools.

As the son of a Ghanaian cocoa farmer, I am intimately familiar with the inner workings of the West African cocoa industry. I started working on my father’s farms when I was seven years old. My older siblings and I helped him, always working under his supervision, because the farm was what sustained the family.

Interestingly, under current U.S. Department of Labor laws, “Youths of any age may work at any time in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents.” That is why so many young American children are allowed to operate sophisticated farm equipment by their parents. Most family-owned American farms have been passed on from one generation to another, and parents often argue that they have to teach their children to take over after they retire or die.

There is no doubt that the work can be hard, but there is something quite special about growing up on a farm. Through that, one learns to appreciate nature in a way that no other experience can provide. The work ethic I acquired from working alongside my father all those years has served me very well in my adult life. In his 2017 book, The Vanishing American Adult, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska touts the “value of working with one’s hands.” He laments the fact that increasing numbers of Americans lack that experience, which is one reason he thinks a large population of today’s American youth is ill-prepared to survive in a hyper-competitive world.

One often-cited concern for children working on West African cocoa farms is that they are deprived of education. That is true, but it is not primarily because parents need them to help on farms, as is frequently reported. Most West African cocoa farmers, although illiterate, understand the value of education and would rather send their children to school to give them the opportunities they never had. But they are unable to, unfortunately, because they live in remote, inaccessible forests where there are no schools. Children growing up in farming communities anywhere in America don’t face that problem because infrastructure exists to enable them to be bused to school where necessary.

Child labor is indeed a huge problem in Africa generally, as indicated by International Labor Organization data. Of the estimated 152 million victims of child labor globally in 2016, 72.1 million were said to be in Africa. The vast majority worked in agriculture, mostly under parental custody. The real child-labor problem, in my view, is the increasingly large numbers of children who work as street vendors in African cities and towns. They weave dangerously through heavy vehicular traffic, carrying heavy loads on their heads in the intense tropical sun. Because such children are almost always out there without parental supervision, they are constantly at risk of being hit by oncoming vehicles. The young girls among them are also frequently at the mercy of sexual predators who can easily lure them off the streets.

In West Africa, whether children are working on family farms, victims of trafficking, or selling wares on the streets, the underlying reasons are crushing poverty and general lack of opportunities. Banning U.S. importation of Ivorian cocoa would make those problems much worse, by taking away the very resources the country needs to take care of its poor. Clearly, the issue is a lot more complicated than Senators Brown and Wyden realize. While the reality is that the number of children in forced labor on West African cocoa farms is extremely small, relatively, the senators do have a legitimate concern. But their approach to solving the problem is certainly not right.