Labor Practices in Cocoa Production

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Labor Practices in Cocoa Production

The following are excerpts from the report entitled, “Analysis of Job Tasks and Activities Performed by Children in Cocoa Production,” authored by L. Diane Mull.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural economy, employing over 80 percent of the rural labor force. The family is the primary unit of labor supply, although there is a trend towards hiring day laborers during peak seasons in cash crop growing regions. Migrant laborers more often come to live on and work the land, mainly from arid regions with low fertility, such as the north or from areas where cocoa production is no longer viable. In forest regions where tree crops are grown, land is lent out, not sold; these sharecropping families usually enter into one of two farming agreements with the land owner:

The Abusa system (meaning one-third in the local Twi/Akan language), where the landowner gives responsibility for the land to the sharecropper. The landowner provides seedlings and other inputs; while the sharecropper is responsible for all labor related to clearing, transplanting, harvesting, and subsequently maintaining the farm until maturity. The sharecropper also grows food crops, which are eaten or sold by the household. In return for his/her labor, the sharecropper receives one third of the proceeds of the sale of the cocoa and other crops, and the landowner collects two-thirds.
The Abunu system (one-half), where the landowner releases the land to a producer to grow crops. The producer is responsible for all labor and inputs. After harvest, the producer receives half of the proceeds.
There is a possibility for an individual to move from a sharecropper to a producer under these systems, however, the process may take decades, if it occurs at all. On a seasonal basis, groups of migrant farm workers, travel from their home areas to the cocoa farms for peak harvesting, especially between November and January, and, to a lesser degree, between July and August. They come to stay with friends and family who share in their money earned. In some cases, they have a running agreement with farmers to provide such services on a seasonal basis. Those already settled in the area usually involve their children in helping on the farms at these times. Some cocoa producers participate in a communal labor system, or nnoboa, where neighboring farms donate labor with the confidence that the recipients will help them when they are in need. However, with the high number of migrants who have settled in the Sefwi Wiawso district, this practice is not widely used.

Labor requirements on cocoa farms are seasonal and intensive at the time of land clearing and harvesting. For about three weeks during harvest time, there is increased activity as farmers pluck the cocoa pods, break, ferment, and dry them. While children of all ages participate, it is usually youth from 14 years and older who do the most intensive work. The peak cocoa harvest occurs simultaneously with the first quarter of school, so it is common for a sizeable proportion of the school children to be absent at this time. Some children stay out of school all year, because they believe that they have fallen too far behind to benefit from school. The work required during the peak cocoa harvest serves as a convenient excuse for students who do not want to attend school or for schools that do not want to accept them. Given that many teachers also have vested interests in cocoa, the teachers themselves may not be available to teach, as they are working on their own or other farms to earn additional income.

The traditional sharecropping arrangement is the primary method for farming families to relocate and find work. It is economically rational for the landowners, because it does not require the investment of capital, and they are assured of a return on the value of their land. Because of the seasonality of their income, most small farmers do not have the resources to pay wage laborers. By paying a family who settles on the land according to their production output, the landowner is assured that the land will be tended to and that the yield will be maximized. The use of daily laborers is relatively rare for most smallholders, since they usually do not have the cash to pay help and rely heavily on family members. Although less common, there are some landowners that have large acreage, some in excess of 100 acres in cocoa trees. These large landowners use various systems for production, including the hiring of migrant workers. Some communities, such as Bawakrom, nearly double in size during the peak harvesting period due to the influx of migrant workers. Additionally, individual workers may be hired to help with the clearing of land. These workers are usually paid a flat rate for each day of labor.

Key Tasks in Cocoa Farming

Findings related to four components: key tasks; tools, equipment, and supplies used; pesticides; and protective gear and clothing are listed below. These tasks are outlined from the beginning steps in the establishment of a farm, when clearing virgin forests, to the final stage of carrying the dried beans to the central shed for selling.

Each of these key task areas includes a series of steps. The performance of the tasks can involve one person working independently or a large group of persons working together. In some cases, there appears to be a general pattern of delineation, based on age and gender, regarding who conducts certain tasks or steps, however, overall, children under the age of 17 were found to be performing tasks regardless of the degree of hazards associated with the job.


Clearing virgin forest
Planting cocoa seeds or seedlings
Weeding and thinning
Pesticide application
Blocking/plucking with Soso[1] Harvesting pods with long cutlass[2] Carrying pods to central cutting area
Opening pods with short cutlass[3] Sorting/breaking up the raw beans
Carrying the raw beans to the fermenting area
Fermenting the beans
Carrying the fermented beans to the drying area
Sorting and drying the beans
Carrying the dried beans to the central shed.

Tools, Equipment and Supplies Used

Workers in cocoa production largely use manual tools. The only mechanized tools reported by workers were a chain saw and a motorized sprayer, however, a majority of workers reported using the cheaper hand-pump sprayer. The major tools, equipment and supplies reported by children and youth as being used in cocoa production were as follows:

Long cutlass
Short cutlass
Sharpening stone
Chain saw
Agricultural chemicals (pesticides)
Hand-pump sprayer
Motorized sprayer
Small tools and rubber washer for repairing sprayer
Fuel for sprayer
Water containers or cup
General purpose rag
While a variety of tools, equipment, and supplies are used, the only maintenance that appears to be performed is the sharpening of the cutlass, chain saw, and soso knife. Respondents reported spending little or no time doing preventive maintenance on equipment after use.


The workers reported or were observed using a variety of pesticides, including fungicides and insecticides, to treat black pod and insect infestations. The following pesticides were observed and/or reported being used: Ridomil, Champion, Cocostar, Nordox, Undane and Thionex. The following table provides a brief overview of these pesticides.[4] Undane is not described in more detail, as the team did not have sufficient information to determine if the product was an organochlorine insecticide or a hexachlorobenzene fungicide. The pesticide container was too faded to derive sufficient information, and the workers knew little other than the name of the chemical.

Sprayers, which are often stored within the housing of workers, were observed to be completely covered and oily to the touch from prior applications of chemicals. Homes are also the primary location where chemicals are stored as well. Likewise, chemicals are often mixed in locations open to all community members, including small children. Pesticide spills are left on the ground without any attempt to decontaminate the area. No proper disposal of chemical containers was observed; in fact, it was reported to be common practice to toss the empty pesticide container, plastic bottle, or packet aside. Additionally, a wiping rag was used for just about all activities. This included wiping up pesticides or fuel that dripped from the chemical container and the backpack sprayer, wiping hands and sweat from the face and neck of the worker due to the heat, or serving as a bandage for cuts or scrapes that occur during work. In fact, it was observed that all of these were done with the same rag during the course of a workday, without washing or exchanging the rag.

Protective Gear or Clothing

According to the Ghana Child Labor Survey, over 95 percent of children in rural areas do not use protective equipment. The typical work attire reported as worn by most male children and youth was short pants, short sleeve or sleeveless tee shirts, and flip-flops. Their female counterparts wore skirts or dresses, short-sleeve tee-shirts, and flip flops.

The most common item regarded as protective equipment that was found in all communities was the “Wellington” boots. These are sturdy, thick soled, rubber boots that rise about mid-calf on the leg. While the boots were common in each community, it was found that they were generally passed around among male workers. The determination of who wears the boots seemed to be dependent largely on the activities that were being performed that day. Workers primarily used them for clearing forest areas and for applying pesticides. Other protective gear or clothing reported as used by workers during cocoa production included:

Spraying coat (often cotton without plastic coating)
Mask (soft cotton material most often used for allergies)
“Afro Moses” sandals (locally made of thick rubber)

[1] A “soso” is the local language term for the bamboo pole with a one or two-edged cutting knife attached at the end of the pole that is used to cut cocoa pods that are out of arm’s reach and located in the upper canopy area of the cocoa trees.

[2] Long cutlass is a machete that is approximately 14 to 16 inches in length with a sharp cutting edge used largely for clearing, weeding and harvesting cocoa pods from the trunk of the tree that is lower to the ground.

[3] Short cutlass is a machete that is approximately 10 to 12 inches in length with a rounded cutting edge used largely to cut open cocoa pods and to remove the beans from the pod.

[4] Reigart, J.R. and Roberts, J.R.. Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings, Fifth Edition, USEPA, March 1999.

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  • Private

    I tend not to drop a ton of responses, however after reading through a few of the comments here %BLOGTITLE%. I actually do have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind. Is it just me or do some of the remarks look like they are written by brain dead folks? 😛 And, if you are posting at other sites, I would like to keep up with you. Would you make a list of every one of your shared sites like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  • Diane Mull

    We try to be understanding of folks and continue to respond to questions or inquiries, although sometimes I do tend to agree with your comment. IIECL is just beginning to establish a Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profile. I’ll try to let you know when those are completed. We appreciate your responding and submitting your comments and opinions.

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