On my last visit to Côte d’Ivoire to investigate child labor in the cocoa sector, I recalled my master’s thesis for the London School of Economics, in which I quoted Sir Bob Hepple, a leader in the field of labor law, equality, and human rights: “Social rights are like paper tigers, fierce in appearance but missing tooth and claw.”

My trip was a reminder that, 12 years after writing my thesis, this adage remains unfortunately true. There are International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions setting the minimum age for admission to work and prohibiting the worst forms of child labor, ratified by more than 160 countries; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by 140 countries; regional instruments, such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and specific legislation in almost all countries in the world. But nothing seems to stop the economic exploitation of children: According to the most recent global estimates from the ILO, there are 168 million child laborers, which is 11 percent of the world’s children. Although this represents a decrease of 47 million child laborers since 2008, progress is still too slow.

To prevent child labor, many companies adopt codes of conduct and monitor suppliers, but these actions do not tackle the root causes of child labor, which include poverty, insufficient levels of organization among cocoa-producing communities, inadequate educational opportunities, cultural norms where labor is seen as the most productive use of children’s time, and weak government enforcement.

Tackling child labor, therefore, requires companies to implement human-rights-aware approaches that are both comprehensive and holistic. To start, companies can:

  • Educate themselves about child labor in the supply chain. Cocoa buyers (and their colleagues on the sustainability team) should know just as much about child labor as they do about the price and quality of cocoa. They should understand the socioeconomic determinants of child labor, such as small land size, low tree productivity, low level of parental education, and inadequate educational infrastructure, to clearly map risks in their supply chains, focus their efforts, and adapt their practices.
  • Develop comprehensive, tailored guidelines and training to explain child labor codes to smallholder farms. Training should begin with smallholders’ perceptions of the definition of a child and a thorough description of farm activities conducted throughout the year, including those perceived as difficult and dangerous. Only then should companies introduce explanations about the definition of children according to international norms and reasons to protect children from hazardous activities. This helps farmers understand that certain practices are acceptable, such as the socializing activities of children working with their families, light work for children as young as 12 or 13 years of age, and non-hazardous work for children older than 15 years of age, while other practices are not.
  • Strengthen traceability in their supply chains and increase the volume of cocoa sourced from trusted, known suppliers. In short, when companies don’t know who has produced their cocoa beans, they should assume that children have been involved. A good level of traceability allows companies to access the information they need to understand the risks of child labor in their supply chain and engage meaningfully with cocoa producers, their communities, and other stakeholders.
  • Help producers organize themselves within cooperatives. Through cooperative structures, companies can engage smallholder farmers on child labor and other issues. In addition, cooperatives allow smallholders to better access financing, technologies, and agricultural best practices that can boost productivity and profits and reduce poverty, which is one of the key determinants of child labor according to the ILO.
  • Join a reputable initiative that promotes collaboration and a holistic approach to fighting child labor. In Côte d’Ivoire, many companies participate in the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), working with national authorities, national and international donors and experts, and cocoa-growing communities to train farmers and community members about abusive practices and to help them through collaborative measures, including the development of community-driven action plans and the strengthening of educational infrastructure. ICI also helps cocoa producers access complementary sources of income, such as the development of small rubber plantations.

While these measures help companies address child labor in their supply chains, they should also expand efforts to promote the rights of children comprehensively by investing in education, health and sanitation, social security, and the promotion of adequate standards of living—in other words, by helping build an inclusive economy. UNICEF’s Children’s Rights and Business Principles and accompanying tools are a good place to begin.

Only through collaboration and the implementation of holistic approaches to community development and rights will we be able to tackle all the determinants of child labor and make the paper tiger of labor standards come to life.