Co-operatives have a role to play in helping to fight against child labour, which is still affecting around 168m children across the world. According to Simel Esim, the head of the Cooperatives Unit of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), co-operatives “have considerable clout when it comes to making a difference”. The size of the co-operative economy currently amounts to USD $2.5trillion.
Around 32% of world’s top 300 co-operatives operate in agriculture, which means they have a significant share in the market. At the same time, according to the ILO, over 60% of child labourers work in farming or a related industry.
”There’s a particular opportunity, and indeed a responsibility, for co-operatives and their associations to look at their supply chains and ensure that they are not inadvertently contributing to the problem,” she said.
Co-operatives, which are democratically run by their members, function based on a set of values and principles. According to the ILO, their distinctive nature can help deliver changes in the way work is organised and wealth is distributed. These are important steps in helping to end child labour.
In the Ivory Coast a cocoa co-operative - Cooperative Agricole Kavokiva du Haut Sassandra (CAKHS) - has achieved substantial progress in fighting child labour. With the assistance of ILO-IPEC West Africa Project, they have prevented or withdrawn 1,800 children aged 5 to 17 from hazardous child labour, while providing them with basic education and vocational training. It is estimated that over 200,000 children are working in agriculture in Ivory Coast, many of them in cocoa production, given that the country supplies 69% of the world's production.
While most families would prefer to send their children to school rather than send them to work, they cannot afford to do so. By joining the co-operative they can receive a fair price for their cocoa and gain access to the market. Around 80 cocoa growing families can now take care of their children at risk or already engaged in child labour.
The International Co-operative Alliance has worked with ILO’s International Programme of the Elimination of Child Labour and with the Cooperatives Unit to increase even more the co-operatives’ role in fighting against child labour. A report published in 2009, titled Co-operating out of child labour offered guidance to co-operatives on how to help fight child labour while also highlighting best practices by co-operative enterprises.
Simon Steyne, head of IPEC’s Social Dialogue and Partnerships Unit thinks that co-operatives can empower small-scale farmers, who as members of co-operatives can have a stronger, collective voice.
He said: “One of the key causes of child labour is inadequate and insecure incomes and a lack of social protection for families. Co-operatives, as social and solidarity economy enterprises, can be important vehicles for a fairer distribution of wealth and an extension of basic social security”.
“And where the key public services children need are lacking, such as education or health care, co-operatives can help communities organise to contribute to the delivery of such services, and have a louder collective voice in bargaining with the public authorities”.
Photo: A child laborer works with bricks circa August 2007 in Peru.