World Day Against Child Labour: Campaign to eradicate the practice in the cocoa industry
On World Day Against Child Labour, Rachel Bonner and Oliver Holland discuss measures being taken to address the issue in the cocoa-growing industry.
Posted on 11 June 2020
Today marks World Day Against Child Labour. According to the International Labour Organisation, worldwide there are 152 million victims of child labour between the ages of five and 17, with almost half of them, 73 million, working in hazardous child labour.
Child labour has long been recognised as endemic in the cocoa industry where research by Tulane University found that around 2.1 million children are working, 96 per cent under conditions deemed hazardous.
In 2001 the world’s largest chocolate companies admitted that child labour existed in their supply chains and pledged to eradicate child labour from their West African cocoa suppliers, signing the “Harkin-Engel Protocol”.
Chocolate companies have repeatedly failed to meet the deadlines they set: in 2005, 2008, 2010 and now 2020. The deadlines have been unilaterally extended each time.
As an investigation by the Washington Post concluded, “in few industries, experts say, is the evidence of objectionable practices so clear, the industry’s pledges to reform so ambitious and the breaching of those promises so obvious”.
Litigation has been brought in the US against chocolate companies, including a class action lawsuit on behalf of child labourers against Nestle and Cargill.
The lawsuit argues that the companies substantially assisted plantation owners in Cote D’Ivoire who used forced child labour performing hazardous work.
The claimants, who are represented by Terrence Collingsworth of International Rights Advocates, are of Malian origin and describe being beaten, whipped and forced to work 14-hour days, unable to leave, and then not paid at the end of the season.
The claim is brought under US human rights legislation as well as common law claims of negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress and unjust enrichment.
The claim details why the various so-called sustainable cocoa plans the companies have set up are not working and are instead merely public relations solutions.
The world’s largest chocolate companies have established programmes such as Nestle’s Cocoa Plan and Mondelez’s Cocoa Life, which promote sustainable cocoa production and sourcing through measures such as third party certification, and through which they commit to working towards the eradication of child and forced labour.
The companies publicise their extensive policies and reports on these commitments and set goals for sourcing certain percentages of their cocoa sustainably.
Despite this, a US Government sponsored report by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago found that child labour on cocoa farms in the cocoa growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana increased significantly between 2008/09 and 2018/19. So too did the prevalence rate of children involved in hazardous child labour. Over the same period, cocoa production and the global price of cocoa also increased.
Industry critics say that the cocoa industry’s efforts have been impeded by insufficient financial commitment and indecision. Antonie Fountain, managing director of the Voice Network, an umbrella group seeking to end child labour in the cocoa industry, says: “The companies have always done just enough so that if there was any media attention, they could say, ‘Hey guys, this is what we’re doing,.. It’s always been too little, too late. It still is.”
Some industry consultants argue that insufficient effort on the part of the companies has been put into fully investigating and understanding the depth of the problem. A report for Mondelez International by Embode, a human rights consultancy, found that the cocoa industry has sought relatively little evidence relating to child slavery, and that there has been a “general lack ... of sufficient attention” to the problem.
The Washington Post investigation identified the lack of rigorous enforcement of child labour rules as weakening companies’ sustainable cocoa programmes. They report that third party inspectors are required to visit fewer than 10 per cent of cocoa farms annually, inspections are typically announced in advance and they are sporadic.
Some companies acknowledge that their certifications inadequately address the problem and do not prevent child labour. A 2017 Nestle report said: “Put simply, when the [certification] auditors came, the children were ushered from the fields and when interviewed, the farmers denied they were ever there”.
Mars’s global vice-president for cocoa, John Ament, told Reuters in September, 2018, “Certification isn’t enough,” and an industry group representing Hershey and Mars said in a 2011 letter to researchers: “Given the absence of farm-level monitoring, none of the three major “product certifiers” have claimed to offer a guarantee with respect to labour practices.”
Further, for an industry collecting an estimated £80.9 billion in annual sales, just £117.9 million has been spent over 18 years to address child labour.
The Voice Network’s Fountain argues: “We haven’t eradicated child labour because no one has been forced to … What has been the consequence ... for not meeting the goals? How many fines did they face? How many prison sentences? None. There has been zero consequence.”
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for States and companies intended to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations.
Principle 17 outlines businesses’ responsibility to undertake due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their adverse human rights impacts. This requires them to ensure that they do not benefit from child labour directly or indirectly.
Certifying groups, which include the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, themselves appear to acknowledge that product labels are imperfect and their methods are being improved.
Bryan Lew, chief operating officer for Fairtrade America, said: “Child labour in the cocoa industry will continue to be a struggle as long as we continue to pay farmers a fraction of the cost of sustainable production. Fairtrade isn’t a perfect solution.”
However, he adds that the higher prices that are paid for certified cocoa, and the formation of farmer co-operatives, are steps towards alleviating poverty – a root cause of child labour.
But some experts say these efforts are not enough to lift a typical cocoa farmer out of poverty, and that the most straightforward way to address child labour might be to pay farmers a much fairer price for their cocoa.
Tony’s Chocolonely is a small Dutch chocolate company which pays about 40 per cent more to its cocoa farmers to try to provide them with a living wage.
As Tony’s company executive Paul Schoenmakers puts it: “Nobody needs chocolate ... It’s a gift to yourself or someone else. We think it’s absolute madness that for a gift that no one really needs, so many people suffer.”