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Child Labour in the Coffee Industry in Eastern Uganda Report

The Child Labour in the Coffee Industry in Eastern Uganda Report presents the findings of a scoping study on Child Labour in the Coffee Industry in Eastern Uganda. This study was jointly implemented by the Centre for the Study of the African Child (AfriChild Centre) and Terre des Hommes Netherlands and was commissioned by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery with funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The study sought to identify drivers of child labour in the coffee sector in Eastern Uganda; landscape the existing regulatory framework for protecting workers in the coffee industry, map stakeholders engaged in the supply chain; and identify key service providers addressing forced or child labour in the coffee supply chain, and promising prevention and prosecution interventions.

Illustration of a girl

Key findings

Nature and extent of child labour 

The overall prevalence of child labour in the coffee supply chain (CSC) was 48 per cent: 51 per cent among boys and 42 per cent among girls. Child labour in the CSC is more prevalent in Kapchorwa (65 per cent) and Bududa (50%) than in Sironko (35%) and Mbale (30%). Most of the children (61%) working in the coffee supply chain did so on the instruction of one or both parents. 

Four in 10 children (43 per cent) aged 5-17 were engaged in hazardous work, including the use of sharp tools, working long hours, exposure to agro-chemicals and carrying heavy loads. For example, 13 per cent of children (aged 5-17 years) in coffee production, reported working more than the allowable number of hours for their age group.  

Children take on a variety of tasks including picking and sorting berries, pruning trees, weeding,  fertilizing, and transporting beans and other supplies. Almost all child labour in the CSC happens  close to production, either on or near the small family-run farms. The nature (activities) and extent  (i.e., regularity of participation) vary depending on the stage in the supply chain and season. Boys more than girls participated in more physically demanding activities such as spraying, pruning,  carrying, loading and offloading coffee. 

The prevalence of child labour in the coffee supply chain reported in this study is comparably higher than reported in a previous study conducted in two districts (Kasese and Bunyangabu  Districts) in the Rwenzori Region (48% vs. 30%), which computed child labour based solely on age-specific hourly thresholds (Terre des Hommes Netherlands, 2021). It is also almost three times the national child labour prevalence rate (UBOS, 2021).

Financial and material poverty and difficulties in accessing education are the key drivers of child labour

 In contexts of systemic poverty – familial livelihood strategies depend largely upon the contributions of their children. There was no evidence that the children were forced into child labour, although certain conditions such as poverty, and crisis in the household seemed to have left children with few alternatives other than to work in the coffee supply chain (CSC).  

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was mentioned as having exacerbated the problem of child labour. This was linked to pandemic-induced poverty, rising cost of living and prolonged school closures, which culminated in many children dropping out of school.

Working in the coffee supply chain hinders children’s education 

Working in the CSC creates a paradox for children: on the one hand, it creates opportunities for  them to generate income and support family livelihoods; on the other, it results in them juggling multiple and often competing responsibilities with implications for their time, including the time needed for schooling. For example, school-going children might be forced to miss school to help their parents, especially during coffee harvest season, sustain injuries that have negative health consequences that prevent them from attending school, or might be too tired to engage in school-related activities due to fatigue from coffee production activities. 

Children’s work in the CSC also poses enormous risks to the safety and well-being of children: 

  • 38 per cent reported being punished when they make mistakes or fail to fulfil the required tasks. The type of punishment, among those reporting punishment, ranged from being shouted at (68%) or insulted (34 %) to physical assault (47 %). 
  • 54 per cent reported suffering/experiencing at least one work-related injury or illness over the last 12 months. Children engaged in hazardous work are more vulnerable to injuries compared to other working children who are not exposed to hazardous work: they were  36 times more likely to get injured than those not exposed to any hazard. Among children who reported work-related injuries, 38 per cent stopped working temporarily and 1 per cent stopped completely. 16 per cent temporarily stopped going to school. 
  • Long hours of work, lack of protective gear, and lack of training in the handling of tools were all reported to increase the risk of injuries.  
  • Only 25 per cent of children in hazardous child labour reported using any personal protective equipment (PPE). The most widely used PPE were gloves (91%) followed by safety boots (4%) and face masks (3%).  
  • Hazards associated with child labour can cause a series of long-term psychological and physical effects (including disabilities) that further impact children’s development and future.  

Government oversight and Regulation 

The coffee supply chain is complex and involves many distinct actors, including smallholder farmers, cooperatives, intermediaries, exporters, and international buyers. The Uganda Coffee  Development Authority (UCDA) is mandated to regulate, promote, and oversee the coffee sector in Uganda, under the National Coffee Act 2021. The oversight role is key to ensuring/upholding supply chain integrity, including ensuring ethical sourcing and social compliance. Nonetheless,  government oversight at all levels of the coffee supply chain remains weak. The UCDA is woefully understaffed and operates under severe budgetary restrictions. For example, there are currently four UCDA staff working in the entire eastern sub-region, covering 8 districts.  

In addition, existing coffee regulations and policies do not include provisions on decent working conditions for workers in the coffee supply chain and do not reference or explicitly address the problem of child labour and forced labour in the coffee sector. Some relevant provisions regarding the occupational safety and health (OSH) of workers in the agriculture sectors can be found in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, No. 9, 2006, the Employment Act, 2006 Employment  Regulations, 2011, and National Employment Policy for Uganda 2011. However, enforcement of agricultural safety and health legislation and standards is often weak. In addition, the  OSH regulatory framework is not fully applicable to the agriculture sector and does not  provide adequate safeguards to protect workers in the coffee sector (including children)  from occupational safety and health (OSH) hazards and risks.  

Results also indicate that while the nature of work in the upstream supply chain (e.g., coffee planting, harvesting) can present even greater risks to the well-being and safety of working children, government oversight in the CSC tends to focus more on the midstream level  (aggregation and processing) and downstream level (e.g., ensuring the quality and competitiveness of coffee exports).  

Private sustainability standards (PSS) in the coffee sector

Private regulatory efforts, such as third-party certification that seek to enhance environmental and social sustainability, have gained traction in the coffee sector in Eastern Uganda. For example,  some cooperatives and companies in Eastern Uganda have opted for certification initiatives, such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. A cross-cutting requirement for most of these initiatives is the prohibition of child labour. The initiatives require businesses to establish systems to prevent,  detect and eliminate child labour. However, they are vulnerable to market pressures. In addition,  audits and checks are oftentimes done with enough advance notification that problems can be hidden. This unreliability highlights the need for private regulation to work in tandem with public regulation in enhancing social and environmental sustainability. In addition, certification procedures must be communicated to direct producers (whether small farmers or hired labourers),  and they must be involved in upholding these expectations. 

Additionally, participants reported four main barriers to upholding supply chain integrity in the  coffee industry: 

  • Liberalisation of the coffee industry. Thus, striking an “optimum” balance between production and commitment to social compliance and environmental responsibilities remains a challenge, especially in a context where government oversight and supervision at all levels of the supply chain is limited.  
  • Not all supply coffee-buying companies and cooperatives have embraced certification in  Eastern Uganda, and considerable confusion remains regarding the certification processes.  
  • Complexity and nature of business relationships in the coffee supply chain. Findings also indicate that some coffee sourcing and buying companies are not always aware of where child labour exists along their supply chains, and how to address these complex issues with suppliers with whom they may not hold direct buying relationships.  
  • The bulk of coffee is produced by smallholder farmers, who depend on their household members, including children, for labour. This makes enforcement of social and labour standards difficult. For example, labour legislation does not extend to work on family farms, and the difference between child work and child labour is often hard to distinguish. Participants reported that the nature of work in the upstream supply chain  (e.g., coffee planting, harvesting) can present even greater risks to the well-being and safety of working children. However, government oversight in the CSC tends to focus more on the midstream level (aggregation and processing) and downstream level (e.g.,  buyers and exporters). In recent years, traceability efforts have helped to define a visual path into the upstream supply chain, but these efforts are sometimes constrained by market realities, such as traders’ and brokers’ unwillingness to disclose their sources for fear of getting cut out of the value chain. 

Government and Civil Society efforts to address child labour  

The Government of Uganda has enacted several laws and regulations to combat child labour. In addition, institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of child labour laws and regulations exist,  but gaps exist that hinder adequate enforcement. Agencies responsible for child labour law enforcement are woefully understaffed and operate under severe budgetary restrictions. There are also inconsistencies in legislation, which poses problems. For example, the minimum working age is lower than the required age for compulsory education. Addressing child labour in the coffee sector is also hampered by the lack of government-backed multi-stakeholder initiatives to provide a platform for collaboration between government agencies, businesses, trade unions and civil society organizations to share best practices and implement shared action to address child labour in the coffee supply chains. 

Regarding CSO initiatives, the scoping study identified two main multi-stakeholder projects focused on addressing child labour in the coffee supply chain in the Eastern region:  The Accelerating Action for the Elimination of Child Labour in Supply Chains program  (2018–2022). The project is implemented by ILO in partnership with the Government of  Uganda and the Federation of Ugandan Employers, with funding from the Ministry of  Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The project focuses on eliminating child labour in coffee and tea supply chains in the Mbale, Kabarole, Buikwe, Hoima, and Bushenyi  districts. Implementation of the project officially began in 2020. In the first year, the project focused on conducting a baseline survey of child labour prevalence in the coffee and tea sectors, mapping child labour monitoring systems, and conducting child labour awareness campaigns in the target districts.   


To effectively eliminate child labour in the CSC, farmers, businesses, governments, and NGOs all need to work together. Overall, results underscore the need to: address economic and social vulnerabilities that render children vulnerable or drive children to work; establish/strengthen child labour monitoring and remediation systems (CLMRS); promote ethical sourcing and social compliance in the coffee supply chain; address gaps in statutory legalisation and enforcement  (i.e. strengthen labour inspection and building law enforcement capacity). Government, companies and civil society organizations should also work jointly work to promote occupational safety and health of children working in the coffee supply chain.

Download the Child Labour in the Coffee Industry in Eastern Uganda Report
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