Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire have been urged to take urgent steps to mend the reputational damage that has arisen from the deliberate anti-slavery marketing approach being used by chocolate manufacturers in Europe.
The two major cocoa producer countries were called upon to also revisit the over one-and-half year old national Child Labour Hazardous Framework that was developed for cocoa.
Mr Nico Roozen, Honorary President of Solidaridad Network, who made the call in Accra, said the ILO Convention 182, after defining Child Labour, required governments to give meaning to the Convention based on local framework categorisation of hazardous work.
"I am of the intuition, based on my conversations that the two governments need to conduct a multi-stakeholder process to review these documents that tend to be used by researchers in their count and identification of what constitutes worst forms of child labour.
Mr Roozen, who led a roundtable on recent cocoa developments in Europe and its implication for sustainable market access in West Africa, said such responsibility must be nationally driven.
The roundtable hosted by Solidaridad West Africa in Accra, saw the participation of key leaders and practitioners in the cocoa sector from Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A statement copied to the Ghana News Agency on Wednesday in Accra said, the roundtable was held against background of concerns of human rights, environmental degradation and governance issues related to cocoa production in West Africa, which have prompted the European Commission to be at the forefront of decisive response.
These developments were said to have implications for producer countries, especially Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, leading world producers of cocoa.
At the roundtable, which saw more than 100 participants connecting physically and virtually, Mr Roozen bemoaned the reputational risk that was emanating from the misunderstanding of realities and calculated misinformation for marketing purposes.
He explained that in the perception of many Western consumers, cocoa from West Africa was increasingly linked to child labour and even labelled slavery just as palm oil was linked to deforestation.
He cited the slavery framing by Tony's Chocolonely, a Dutch confectionery company, that deliberately trumpets 100 per cent slave free chocolate on its packaging, featuring a brand logo with the 'broken chain' of historic slavery.
Mr Roozen affirmed that there was no evidence of slavery in West Africa's cocoa sector.
"Tony's Chocolonely's argumentation on the slavery slants takes undue advantage of some reported incidence of child labour to serve its marketing interest, as this has seen the confectionery maker expand its business all over Europe, North America and even to Japan.
"Sadly, other brands are following this bad example of stigmatizing cocoa produced in West Africa," he said.
Mr. Roozen further opined that a data-based consensus was emerging that 97 per cent of occurrences of child labour was linked to children who were delivering services to their parents at a family farm or as tenant farmer and this could better be understood as child work and not child labour.
He argued that "the classical definition of child labour, which takes into account a labour condition that destroys the future of the child, is rare in the sub-region, as child work that takes place in family farms does not compromise children's school going or affect their health and wellbeing."
He said available data suggested that school attendance in cocoa-growing communities had increased, citing Ghana's implementation of the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) as having witnessed approximately 96 per cent coverage.
Mr. Roozen said it was therefore, inappropriate to frame farmers who sought to socialize, educate and pass on farming knowledge to their children through training, as slaveholders.
"I clearly remember a farmer telling me, with full pride that working with his son is a pleasure. It is socialization, education, learning farming and working in succession for generations.
"With a smile on his face, he said, "of course, I take care of my son and other African parents love their children too".
With the same smile, his son confirmed, "My father is not a slaveholder".
Mr Roozen also shared an anecdote of a seventeen year-old who took to spraying agrochemicals in his father's farm.
"The boy said, 'I can read and understand the instructions on the container label but my father cannot. Besides, I could support the family business with my strength and learn invaluable lessons by working with my father.
"These perspectives of farmers are not cited as selected stories to prove a thesis but they are colouring data-based findings of child work in family farms," he added.
Making suggestions for dealing with the issue of child work, Mr Roozen asked rhetorically, "who else will do the work children are doing now?"
He argued that solving child work was about economics and must be seen as such.
"If the farmer could afford hired labour that offers a decent workplace to an adult worker that would have been his preference. But hired labour is too expensive in many cocoa-growing areas in Ghana, where artisanal mining tends to compete for labour and pays a higher daily return on labour than agriculture.
"Besides, statutory set minimum wages by national governments are often higher than what the cocoa farmer can afford given the total farmer income," he said.
Mr Roozen said that historically, all over the world, the eradication of child labour was linked to a process of modernization of agriculture with a number of key elements in combination, which included: hiring permanent and seasonal workers; mechanisation/technology; growth of a service provider businesses: agri-finance tailored to meet the needs of the sector; and addressing scale through appropriation or re-allotment.
He said modernisation of agriculture in many advanced economies for instance was driven, among others, to a great extent, by cost-effective service provision that offered the latest technology, time-bound high-quality professionals and efficient services in peak times.
"In these economies, child labour laws and regulations were never the real change makers; neither were traditional NGO interventions that just raised awareness of the issue.
Better earning models on the farm and in the supply chain were decisive", he said.
Mr Roozen drew lessons from Solidaridad's involvement in innovative process at three levels of interventions, including mobiliziing consumers through fair trade and organic; committing companies through Corporate Social Responsibility concepts, and, sector-wide approaches through Roundtable processes.
He said even though that was an exciting journey, the scope and impact was limited to voluntary market acceptance.
"Voluntary standards were the second best in times of dominant neoliberal concepts of the withdrawing government leaving social and ecological responsibility to the market, with today's ecological catastrophe and massive social exclusion, as a consequence," Roozen opined.
He also made a case for a growing political consensus on the need of framing markets by regulations aiming for better social and ecological outcomes.
"However it is my impression that we have to change our initial position that portrays legislation as the next step in market transformation in a more critical position of warning for unforeseen negative consequences and effects of regulations," he said. "The quality of regulations matter a lot".
"Without a real understanding of realities and partnerships with stakeholders in producing countries, legislation could be dead on arrival.
It would not solve issues of farmers but rather de-risking them for supply chain players."