Chump Change and Smoke

August 7, 2012 | Len Morris

I’ve just attended the Global March Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture in Washington DC.The room was filled with people committed to ridding the world of products made by child labor labor. They have their work cut out for them.

Picking tobacco in Mexico

The Department of Labor tells us that 60 percent of child labor is in agriculture, 129 million children between the ages of 5-17 work in this sector. Over 56 agricultural goods are produced using child labor and more than half of these involve “forced” labor or modern slavery.

The supply chain for some of the most profitable commodities is global and relies on children, migrant and indigenous families and poor farmers in some of the least developed parts of the world. This pattern repeats itself in the case of tobacco (16 countries), sugarcane (15 countries), coffee (13 countries), rice (8 countries),cocoa (5 countries), among many more.(U.S. Department of Labor List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor)

Children in agriculture are often working alongside their families, for some it’s a choice between work or hunger. The work carries a high risk of injury from accidents, illness or even death from pesticides and often excludes the child from attending school.

While the families and farmers who grow these crops live in poverty, the products they produce are the basic ingredients for products that generate huge profits for multinational companies. While these businesses didn’t invent child labor and can’t solve the problem without the active participation of government and civil society, I feel they bear the primary responsibility for the issue in their supply chains. Governments and non profits are limited in what they can do to end child labor without significant resources and the money is concentrated in the business models of multinationals who are benefiting from the Status quo.

Texas onion field

At the conference, there was much discussion of supply chains, the process by which a raw commodity like a coffee bean or tobacco leaf becomes a product we buy and use. Delegates from Africa and Latin America spoke of how the these supply chains are controlled from the top down by the companies. Poor farmers and agricultural workers are paid by a piece-work system. For example, you pick a pound of onions and you get a penny, a sixty pound bag is worth sixty cents to the worker. Small wonder the entire family must work to produce as much volume as they can. I’ve seen families of five pick for 10 hours and make $100… and this was in Texas.

In Mexico, I’ve filmed nine year old Huichol girls string tobacco 12 hours a day, sickening themselves with exposure to pesticides and nicotine for 50 cents per 20 ft. string. I’ve seen coffee sold for 35 cents a pound at the farm in Kenya that sells in my grocery store for $12.99 a pound. In all of these cases, the farm worker is not seeing any of this mark-up and the children are never paid a cent.

Now occasionally, agricultural workers will band together to win a victory over companies that usually exploit their powerlessness. One such victory was related at the Global March Conference by Baldemar Velasquez of FOC USA who related an 8 year struggle to force Campbell, Heinz and Vlasic to pay decent wages to adults for harvesting cucumbers in Ohio. The workers were paid a premium for those #1 cukes so coveted by the company. Their increased productivity was rewarded and the companies agreed to invest in education programs for the workers’ children. A great outcome but it took 8 years, a full generation of struggle and negotiation. I wonder if the 129 million children currently working in agriculture can afford a decade of their lives while farmers organize and negotiate a fair deal for their work?

At this conference, both the Chocolate and Tobacco industries were represented by their child labor Foundations, established as the industry’s answer to charges that they callously ignore children in their supply chains. The Foundations employ people with backgrounds in social protection who then direct  limited efforts to reduce child labor in the sector.

I have a number of problems with this industry Foundation model. The first is the smokescreen.

The ECLT Foundation was created to stop child labor in tobacco. It’s membership includes 15 tobacco companies who fund the effort. At the conference, they made an impressive power point presentation explaining why we still have children working poor, hungry, uneducated and poisoned by tobacco. Delegates were told of a few industry pilot programs to raise awareness, educate a handful of children and heard solemn pledges that the industry is serious about the issue. Frankly, I find this insulting to a room filled with people who work on the front-lines of this issue.

stringing tobacco in Mexico

If the industry were truly serious about child labor in their supply chains they could level the economic playing field quite simply, by paying a fair price to the farmer so that they wouldn’t be forced to decide between feeding their kids or educating them. Their Foundation efforts are a PR smokescreen, chump change spent to obscure their actual business practices.

We live in a world where computers enable traders to tell us the value of any commodity, anywhere in the world, any time of the day. It’s a world where people profit legitimately and where people reap huge unearned profits buying and selling futures or simply speculating in agricultural commodities. If we can parse the value of a commodity for trade and profits then why can’t we do the same for simple fairness and arrive at a floor price for agricultural products that will be sufficient to enable small farmers to send their children to school.

Let’s examine the many stages of production for a cigarette or candy bar and see where the money goes. Let’s ask the global commodity traders, agricultural workers and Producer’s Associations to help us set international baseline prices for the 56 goods children produce. What’s a price that will enable adults to harvest these crops and provide for their families? Let’s make the small farmer part of the business model and do business with them instead of at them in the most Darwinian way.

Cocoa farm Ivory Coast

I know that there will be a huge amount of noise made about the difficulties of creating a system of this kind. I have confidence that a real partnership of business, government and civil society could make immediate and dramatic progress if resourced with a fair share of the income generated by agricultural products. The plan shouldn’t be limited to tobacco and cocoa but extended to all agricultural products and commodities.

Picking coffee in Kenya



Along with paying better prices, linkages could be made with cash transfer programs such as the Bolsa Familia in Brazil. Using this approach, rural families would receive money, set aside by the companies, to send their kids to school. Schools and infrastructure could be built where they currently don’t exist and national plans to end child labor would be fully funded. For this, a coffee company might have to settle for seven thousand per cent mark-up instead of ten thousand per cent.

Kailash Satyarthi spoke passionately at the Conference of a sense of urgency in removing children from hard labor. Do we wait a decade or more for farmers to organize in Tanzania or Costa Rica in order to gain enough leverage to negotiate with powerful multinationals? Or do we set in place a system of fair remuneration for the products being traded, like the pickle agreement in Ohio, where the industry was able to recover its’ costs through increased worker productivity, where the piece-work system of compensation was scrapped and the higher wages paid eliminated the necessity for children to work alongside their parents.

The next conference on child labor is in Brazil in 2013. If it’s like this Global March Conference or the 2010 Conference at the Hague, the room will be filled with people already working their hearts out to end child labor.

Here is an opportunity for business to step forward and participate in a real dialog about basic fairness in the supply chains of agricultural products.

Global consumers don’t want products made by forced child labor and business as usual will not prove sustainable for these companies if they continue to make profits at the expense of children. At the end of the day, ending child labor in agriculture is about the money. It’s going to take more than chump change and smoke to fix the problem.

All photos : U. R. Romano

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2 Responses to “Chump Change and Smoke”

  1. [...] Morris has written a very interesting article in giving his reflections on the recent International Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture [...]

  2. [...] Morris has written a very interesting article in giving his reflections on the recent International Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture [...]

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