It’s Not as “Vanilla” as You Think: The Child Labor Problem in Madagascar’s Vanilla Industry

It’s Not as “Vanilla” as You Think: The Child Labor Problem in Madagascar’s Vanilla Industry

Ali Casey

Vanilla is a spice that is enjoyed across the globe. Madagascar, an island country located off the southeastern coast of Africa, produces around 75 to 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla.[1] Moreover, vanilla is Madagascar’s leading agricultural export.[2] Madagascar vanilla beans are considered the “gold standard” of quality vanilla beans because of their rich, creamy, and complex flavor.[3] However, behind the luxury of Madagascar vanilla is an army of child laborers. In fact, the United States Department of Labor (“U.S. DOL”) recognizes vanilla from Madagascar as a good produced by child labor.[4] Domestic and international initiatives have tried to combat this problem, but success appears elusive.

Madagascar’s vanilla industry is complex, and that is exactly why child labor may be so widespread throughout. Natural vanilla is a high value-low volume crop,[5] meaning even when few vanilla beans are sold, there is still plenty of money to be made. In 2020, the Malagasy government set the minimum export price of vanilla at $250 per kilogram.[6] In 2018, the price rose as high as $600 per kilogram.[7] Large vanilla producers and family farmers rely on high vanilla prices for a greater income.[8] Yet, the lucrative industry often leads to tunnel vision, causing farmers to fail to diversify their crops, and hence their revenue.[9] The price fixing also hurts farmers’ profit margins because it can lead to a high inflation rate of basic goods that farmers must purchase to survive, such as bottles of water.[10]

Vanilla industry norms create fertile ground for other conditions that amplify the occurrence of child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla sector. The most direct cause for child labor in this industry is poverty.[11] Additionally, the absence of local vocational and skills training, the desire to keep production costs low, and the threat of crop theft all contribute to child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla industry.[12] Likewise, supply chain management issues, an unsustainable economic model, and a poorly developed educational system also fuel the continuance of the problem.[13]

Moreover, the manner in which vanilla is grown and produced also contributes to the child labor problem. The north of Madagascar is the country’s main vanilla producing region, known as the SAVA region, home to the cities of Sambava, Antalaha, Vohémar, and Andapa.[14] The SAVA region alone had approximately 70,000 vanilla producers in 2021.[15] The region has rich soil and plentiful rainfall, creating optimal conditions for vanilla plants.[16] However, growing vanilla is labor intensive and requires “patience, expertise, and strenuous work.”[17] Despite the demanding work—or potentially because of it—children play a major role in the vanilla industry in Madagascar.

In 2012, the International Labour Organization (“ILO”) conducted a study and found around 20,000 children aged 12 to 17 worked in the vanilla industry in Madagascar, which was more than 30 percent of the industry’s workforce.[18] Children are involved in various tasks. For example, children often pollinate the vanilla flowers.[19] Each vanilla flower blooms only once in its lifetime and stays open for mere hours.[20] When the flowers open, they must quickly be pollinated by hand, requiring children to be awake early in the morning when the flowers bloom.[21] Additionally, children participate in hazardous tasks, such as carrying heavy loads of vanilla beans, using sharp tools for farm maintenance, working long hours, and facing exposure to gruelingly high temperatures. Children are also recruited to engage in vanilla theft, which can be extremely dangerous.[23]

To tackle the child labor problem in its vanilla industry, the Malagasy government took action in recent decades. The government issued numerous national regulations on child labor[24] and created other laws about work and education. In Madagascar, the minimum age to work is 15 years and the minimum age to perform hazardous work is 18 years.[25] The government also made it compulsory for children up to 16 years of age to complete secondary school.[26] These laws and regulations are in line with relevant international standards, and Madagascar has ratified all key international conventions concerning child labor.[27] Madagascar also created five agencies responsible for enforcing child labor laws and additional agencies to enforce criminal laws.[28]

Various international efforts were also made to end child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla sector. In 2015, vanilla exporters, the ILO, the Malagasy government, and the National Platform for Vanilla collaboratively developed the Vanilla Code of Conduct to combat child labor. [29] The Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (“SVI”)—a voluntary industry effort “aimed to promote the long-term supply of high quality vanilla that is produced in a socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable way”—had its members sign the Vanilla Code of Conduct.[30] The signing of the Vanilla Code of Conduct by SVI members—consumer goods manufacturers, vanilla bean traders, flavors and fragrances companies, and cooperatives—was an outward commitment to improve the vanilla industry, including the goal of “addressing child labor.”[31] Additionally, the U.S. DOL Bureau of International Labor Affairs partnered with the ILO to create the “Supporting Sustainable and Child Labor Free Vanilla Growing Communities in SAVA” (“SAVABE”) project to reduce the child labor problem in Madagascar’s vanilla industry.[32] SAVABE helped implement the Vanilla Code of Conduct by investing in “education about child labor issues, ensuring capable systems for monitoring and addressing child labor issues [existed], and investing in improving the livelihoods of vanilla producing communities including educational and vocational training opportunities for youth.”[33]

However, the domestic and international attempts to interrupt and prevent child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla sector have not yet succeeded. Although Madagascar has child labor laws in place, the U.S. DOL stated that an “insufficient allocation of financial and human resources” within enforcement agencies may have contributed to an inability to adequately enforce labor and criminal laws in Madagascar.[34] For example, an insufficient number of labor inspectors in Madagascar means the informal sector—where most of the child labor occurs—is uncovered by those who can enforce laws.[35] Therefore, enforcement of the minimum working age and prohibition of child labor is nearly nonexistent. Likewise, the Fair Labor Association (“FLA”) interviewed stakeholders in Madagascar’s vanilla industry after the SAVABE project and other internationally-driven initiatives were implemented. The FLA concluded those projects did not improve the child labor problem at scale.[36] The FLA deduced that the competition in gaining loyalty of vanilla growers, lack of governmental means to sustain efforts, and lack of coordination between company- and government-run approaches to ending child labor hindered efforts.[37] Although domestic and international initiatives aiming to end child labor have been implemented, it appears the child labor problem in Madagascar’s vanilla industry is still highly prevalent.

Continued efforts must be made to put an end to child labor in Madagascar’s vanilla sector. To make a meaningful attempt at ending child labor, long-term agreements need to be made by the Malagasy government, vanilla producers, and vanilla farmers to engage in sustainable economic models of vanilla farming and production. In the short term, the Malagasy government should consider allocating more financial and human resources to labor and criminal law enforcement agencies to hold people accountable for their contribution to the child labor problem. On an individual level, global consumers of natural vanilla should be mindful when purchasing vanilla from Madagascar by looking for vanilla that is ethically sourced, produced without child labor, and in which fair wages are paid to the farmers and laborers.[38] Although child labor is still deeply embedded within Madagascar’s vanilla industry, continually improving existing initiatives has the potential to effectuate meaningful change.


[1] Madagascar- Agriculture, (May 11, 2018),; Child Labor in the Vanilla Sector in Madagascar, Fair Lab. Ass’n (June 29, 2021),

[2] Madagascar, supra note 1.

[3] Spotlight: Madagascar Vanilla Beans, The Spice House (Mar. 20, 2022),

[4] 2022 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, U.S. Dep’t Lab. 1 (2022).

[5] Vanilla Industry,, (last visited Nov. 9, 2022).

[6] Jeff Gelski, Madagascar Vanilla Prices Could Have Buyers Searching Elsewhere, Food Bus. News (Nov. 25, 2020),

[7] Id.

[8] A Tale of Two Supply Chains: Child Labor in the Vanilla Sector in Madagascar, Fair Lab. Ass’n 2, 8 (2021) [hereinafter Tale of Two Supply Chains].

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Mei Zegers, Interim Performance Evaluation: Supporting Sustainable and Child Labor Free Vanilla Growing Communities in Sava, Madagascar, U.S. Dep’t Lab. Bureau Int’l Lab. Affs. 1, 8 (2019).

[12] Id.

[13] Child Labor in the Vanilla Sector in Madagascar, supra note 1.

[14] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 5.

[15] Id.

[16] Spotlight: Madagascar Vanilla Beans, supra note 3.

[17] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 5.

[18] Child Labor in the Vanilla Sector in Madagascar, supra note 1.

[19] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 27.

[20] Id. at 5.

[21] Id. at 5, 28.

[22] Id. at 28-29; 2021 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, Bureau Int’l Lab. Affs. 1, 2 (2021).

[23] 2021 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, supra note 22, at 2; see Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 32.

[24] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 10 (listing national regulations issued in Madagascar pertaining to child labor, including Act No. 2003-044 of 28 July 2004 on the Labour Code; Constitution of the Fourth Republic (11 Dec. 2010); Decree No. 2007-563 of 3 July 2007).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] 2021 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, supra note 22, at 2-3 (listing various laws and regulations in Madagascar that are in line with international standards and showing international conventions Madagascar has ratified, including ILO C. 138, Minimum Age; ILO C. 182, Worst Forms of Child Labor; UN CRC, UN CRC Optional Protocol on Armed Conflict; UN CRC Optional protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; Palermo Protocol on trafficking in Persons).

[28] Id. at 3-6 (listing various enforcement agencies, such as Ministry of Civil Services and Labor’s Division for the Prevention, Abolition, and Monitoring of Child Labor (PACTE), Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security’s National Civil Police Force Morals and Minors Brigade, Ministry of National Defense’s National Gendarmerie Morality and Child Protective Services, Ministry of Population, Social Protection, and the Promotion of Women (MPPSPF)).

[29] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 10.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] See generally Zegers, supra note 11.

[33] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 10-11.

[34] 2021 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, supra note 22, at 4-5.

[35] Id. at 5.

[36] Tale of Two Supply Chains, supra note 8, at 11.

[37] Id.

[38] About the Standards, Fairtrade Int’l, (last visited Nov. 9, 2022). For example, in order for a product to be Fairtrade certified, child labor is prohibited. See also What is Fairtrade?, Nielsen-Massey, (last visited Nov. 9, 2022) (explaining that Nielsen-Massey makes Fairtrade Madagascar vanilla extract).