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COVID and Child Labor

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As with every disaster, COVID is taking the inequalities and dysfunctions of a society and exacerbating them. We are seeing that on any number of levels here in the Failed States of America. But globally, it’s also driving more children into child labor.

Here’s an unusual way to help fight the coronavirus pandemic: Start buying Fairtrade-certified chocolate and coffee. The connection may not be immediately obvious, but Fairtrade International is warning that the pandemic has led to a deeply disturbing spike in child labor around the world. There are several reasons for this.

Schools are closed and there are fewer places for children to go, which means that more children are being forced into laboring. There are fewer migrant workers flooding into West African cocoa and South American coffee plantations for the harvest season, due to their own health and safety concerns or responsibilities for caring for family members. Because the harvest is such a labour-intensive and time-sensitive operation, children are being brought in to meet this need. 

Because travel is restricted or limited in many places, there is less oversight from traditional monitoring bodies, which means that some farmers can get away with breaking rules more readily than usual. Fairtrade International says that its “cocoa cooperatives in West Africa [have] reported cases of severe child labor in their communities but are unable to get government or specialist support to act.” 

This is not surprising. Economic downturns often result in increases in child labor, as they bring on poverty, and poverty is intimately linked to an underaged workforce. When parents become sick, children are responsible for earning wages to support the family, even if those wages are mere pennies. 

As a whole, this article is basically an advertisement for fair trade certified products. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Consumer movements can be effective in changing working conditions–but only if they are organized. Fair trade is all about appealing to the morals of the individual wealthy world consumer. As a short-term measure, that’s fine, but there needs to be a bigger vision to help solve these problems, such as my proposed Corporate Accountability Act. Instead, most of this just makes people feel good about their consumer choices.

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