Cocoa industry relies on forced labour and exploits women workers, research shows

  • Cocoa industry business models rely on labour exploitation including unpaid labour and violence against farm workers
  • Women workers on cocoa farms earn 30 per cent less than men
  • University of Sheffield study reveals how sexist attitudes and unequal societies make women more likely to face forced labour, low pay and abuse

Cocoa beans

Workers in the cocoa industry’s global supply chains experience forced labour and widespread exploitation, according to new research.

Experts at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield found that women workers tend to experience more severe forms of exploitation, and that cocoa industry business models are configured to profit from women’s unequal position within the industry and society.

The study, published in the Journal of Development Studies, reveals that cocoa workers in Ghana endure physical and sexual violence, verbal abuse and food deprivation. Many experience involuntary labour and face going unpaid, underpaid or having their pay withheld.

Using data gathered in 2016 and 2017 from 74 cocoa communities from Ghana’s two largest cocoa-producing regions, the Western and Ashanti regions, the researchers uncovered the ways in which gender shapes patterns of work and exploitation. Factors such as gendered norms and divisions of labour, payment practices and income inequalities, unequal land access, a lack of redress and access to justice, and household and family practices come together to render women workers disproportionately vulnerable to severe labour exploitation.
Ghana is the second largest exporter of cocoa in the world, representing 21 per cent of global production. Cocoa from Ghana feeds into the UK market and is found in many staple household goods.

Women workers’ average yearly earnings are 1,610 Ghana cedis ($298.15), compared to an average of 2,356 Ghana cedis ($436.30) for men. Women are more likely to be hired for lower-paid roles and are sometimes paid less for doing the same work as men, based on the assumption that women will be able to carry out less work, or to do it less competently.

Where women work with their husbands on a farm, their spouse receives the payment for both of them, meaning wives don’t always receive their fair share.

Farm owners seek to minimise costs by making deductions from workers’ pay for equipment, fertiliser, food and transportation. They impose fees and fines, sometimes creating situations of debt bondage, where they force workers to pay off fees through unpaid labour.

Workers also report being made to take on unpaid tasks such as weaving drying mats for cocoa beans, under threat of fines, pay deductions or being fired.

Farm owners prefer to hire men as permanent workers, believing that they can undertake more arduous physical labour, which leaves women more open to forms of exploitation connected with precarious work. Farm owners also prefer to hire men with wives and children to live and work on their farmlands, often because this makes it harder for the worker to leave.

Professor Genevieve LeBaron, Director of SPERI at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: “This study has uncovered the brutal reality of life for workers in the cocoa industry’s supply chains – where business models are built on exploitation and inequality.

“Until now very little research has been done into how gendered power relations and unequal societies make women more likely to face forced labour, low pay and abuse. This paper shows that to eradicate forced labour in the cocoa industry, governments and big international corporations must take gender into account.”

Dr Ellie Gore, Global Challenges Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the study, said: “Our research shows how the business models of highly profitable companies rely on the exploitation of women workers. This isn't happening due to a few rogue employers, it’s structural and industry wide. A spotlight should be put on labour conditions for women workers at the base of cocoa supply chains around the world.”

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