Talking about the difference between family work and child labour in Africa

TFT's Head of Africa Gerome Tokpa explains the important distinction between the two

When I was six I got woken up around five in the morning. Work on the farm needed doing. It was a three mile walk, which I sometimes walked alone. When it was dark I had to carry fire to help me see where I was going. Sometimes I would cry. It was cold and I didn’t want to get up so early to do work, but I had to get in the rice farm before the birds, so I could frighten them away. Otherwise they’d eat all the rice. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like it at all. Does this mean I was working as a child labourer? No, it does not.

It was my father who sent me and it was never seen as child labour. My father told me I had to learn about farming – schooling was plan B. If I failed there my only hope of a job was through farming and eventually taking over from my father. It’s the same for the vast majority of children in Africa, where 80% live in rural environments.

I may not have liked getting up early, but the experience taught me a lot. There were occasional perks too, but we had to work for them. My father’s plantation had around three hectares of cocoa and four hectares of coffee. He needed the cocoa to be harvested. He couldn’t afford to pay me. Still, if I was able to harvest the cocoa I was able to sell it at the market and have the money.

I was only a young boy and in the western world this routine would seem strange. These children are working, they are slaves. No, this was family work

My father managed to send me to school, but for him I had to know how to farm and how to harvest cocoa. So in the holidays he used to ask my brother and me to make our own money in the cocoa plantation. If we didn’t we wouldn’t have any money from him during the school term. Of course, it was a way to encourage us to practice farming; so it was like a concurrence between me and my brother. It involved hard work though. I had to carry the heavy basket pods on my head. The motivation to earn gave me some extra strength. In this way my father gave me freedom to be chief.

I was only a young boy and in the western world this routine would seem strange. These children are working, they are slaves. No, this was family work – it is distinctly different from child labour, which is taboo in the west, but even more taboo in Africa. In my job with TFT now visiting farmers I have to be very careful in mentioning the term, because for many they are teaching their children how to farm. This could well be their livelihood one day. They must know it. Otherwise they could end up on the street.

Child labour does exist though and it is a problem. They do not learn about farming, they just toil. And if they do not work they get no food and no clothes.

Child labour does exist though and it is a problem. Young men and children are often sent to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast from Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. Sometimes they may only eat one meal a day. They do not learn about farming, they just toil. And if they do not work they get no food and no clothes. But today too few make the distinction between child labour and family work. In my role out in the field you must observe very carefully. Are children suffering? Are they unhappy? Yes, audits exist, but a one to three-day visit to a plantation is not sufficient. The audit is pre-planned and the owners let the auditors see what they want to be seen.

They are no easy solutions here, but it is important to open up conversations about the differences between family work and child labour. One method is an important and vital part of young Africans’ lives, the other is most definitely not.

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