The definition of child labour as contained in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Child Labour Convention 182, Ghana Children's Act 1998 (Act 560), and indeed Article 28 of the 1992 Constitution, which focus on child labour, clearly capture children in commercial agriculture. In fact, commercial agriculture is listed as one of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL).
Simply put, commercial agriculture is the cultivation of cash crops as against food crops — or, if you like, an agricultural activity strictly meant for commercial other than subsistence purposes.
Cocoa is top on the list of cash crops in this country. As a matter of fact, in Ghana, cocoa is THE CASH CROP. To wit, nobody cultivates cocoa in Ghana for any other purpose, domestic or subsistence other than commercial.
Obviously, when one engages the services of children on a cocoa plantation, the law and international conventions like the ILO Convention 182 on Child Labour, to which Ghana is a signatory, calls it “children in commercial agriculture” and that is child labour.
In spite of the existence of that international protocol, the Children's Act and Article 28 of the 1992 Constitution, it is still a very common practice in Ghana to see children below the age of 18, working on farms with their parents.
While for a few Ghanaians, working on the farm as a child is just for fun, for the great majority it is actually a necessity. At least, that is the argument of some thinkers who would rather want to maintain that it is part of our culture for parents to train their children in farming skills in addition to whatever formal education the children may acquire from school.
Recently, the Minister of Tourism and Diasporan Relations, Jake Obetsebi Lamptey, strongly debunked claims by the international community that Ghanaian cocoa farmers employ children to work on large cocoa plantations and for that matter our farmers are violating the international and domestic laws against child labour.
The minister argued that more than 90 per cent of cocoa plantations in Ghana are small family holdings and not large plantations as our accusers falsely claimed.
Moreover the children who work on the farms do so as a matter of household chores and not as jobs, in that they do menial work on the cocoa farms after school and on weekends.
The rationale for his argument is that so long as the children do not work on large plantations, and the work they do on the farms does not affect their education, health and general development in any negative way, we cannot describe it as child labour.
Indeed, if the minister's claim is really so, then at first glance he is not far from right because the law clearly distinguishes between the concepts of child work and child labour.
According to the law, child labour other than child work is any kind of job that negatively affects the child's education, health and general development.
So, if the child does any kind of work that helps him or her to develop additional skills to his or her formal education that is child work, which is different from child labour, which impacts the child's general development negatively.
For instance, whereas hawking by a child on busy streets is child labour, hawking within one's vicinity (from house to house), where there are few or no motorists and as well as after school table-top trading for children is considered child work which helps the child develop accounting and trading skills.
Again, helping one's parents or guardians at home after school to do some less burdensome household chores is child work and not child labour. There are more.
The minister's argument is that most children working on cocoa farms do so after school and as household chores so their parents cannot be accused of practising child labour, even though he would agree that cocoa farming is commercial agriculture, which is clearly described by the law as child labour.
I have personally had a dialogue with some literate folk in this country on this subject and was surprised to learn that most of them had at one point in their childhood worked on their parents' cocoa farms and they considered that as a learning experience rather than burdensome labour.
The argument then was that their parents sweated on the farms to send them to school and so it was only fair that anytime they returned from school, they had to lend their parents a helping hand on the farms.
Indeed, the practice is replicated in even the non-farming communities where children join their parents in trading, fishing and other forms of commercial activities out of necessity. In some cases, the children actually need to do that in order to raise some money to support their parents to provide for them (the children).
If you live in such communities, you often heard parents threaten their children who refuse to join in the family business with statements like “if you do not send these items on hawking there will be no money for you to take to school tomorrow morning.”
I am not against the culture that instils a sense of belonging in Ghana, where the whole family, children and adults alike, join hands in the family business to see it flourish for the benefit of all. But the law is very emphatic on what is child labour and what is not.
The international conventions ratified by our governments and the national laws on children's rights and child labour clearly list children in commercial agriculture, and for that matter cocoa farming, as child labour.
The co-ordinators of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) of the ILO in Ghana argue that unless the Ghanaian government changes its position on the international conventions and amend the national laws to exclude commercial agriculture from the list of WFCL it would remain wrong for anyone to use children on cocoa farms, no matter how menial the work they do.
Indeed, laws are not just for the books but to be observed and in this case the law is against children working on cocoa farms and we need to uphold it as a nation instead of behaving like ostriches and behaving as if the law should apply in one case and not in the other.
The question I want to ask the Minister of Tourism and those who argue that children working on cocoa farms do menial jobs is, Who determines what is a menial job and what is not? What is the definition of a menial job?
Is it possible, for instance, for those who use children on the Volta Lake as divers to argue that the children have been trained for it and so we cannot say that they are being subjected to child labour? Can they claim that the children are not made to do what is beyond their skills and strength and so they are not into labour?
What about those who send their children to hawk on the streets, those pushing trucks, those engaged in industrial work, those in 'galamsey', in domestic servitude and other seemingly harmless activities listed as child labour?
Can they also argue that those activities do not affect the children negatively as the law claims? Where do we draw the line?
I am sure we all do agree that children in commercial sex, in ritual servitude, in drug peddling and child trafficking are obvious culprits of child labour, but because the others seem harmless we could probably argue against their inclusion in the list of WFCL.
There is probably only one way to lay all these to rest: Ghana must be bold to opt out of being a signatory to the ILO Child Labour Convention 182 and the others, amend Article 28 of the 1992 Constitution and the Children's Act (Act 560), 1998, to exclude all the activities that we think are culturally part of us.
Otherwise we owe it a duty to our children to ensure that we keep them out of all activities listed as child labour in the list of WFCL.
Article by Samuel Dowuona