The world’s chocolate companies depend on cocoa produced with the aid of more than 1 million West African child workers, according to a new report produced by NORC at the University of Chicago. Despite cocoa industry promises to eradicate the practice, child labour is on the rise.
In 2001, some of the world’s largest chocolatiers — including Nestlé, Hershey and Mars — pledged to eradicate “the worst forms of child labour” from their sources in West Africa, the world’s most important supply. Since then, however, the firms have missed deadlines to eliminate child labour in 2005, 2008 and 2010. Each time, they have promised to do better, but the new report indicates that the incidence of child labour in West African cocoa production has risen.
A Washington Post investigation of the use of child labour in the cocoa industry found that representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands could not guarantee that any of their chocolate was produced without child labour. One reason is that 20 years after pledging to eradicate the practice, chocolate companies still could not identify the farms where all their cocoa comes from, let alone whether child labour was used in producing it.
Nearly 1.6 million children were engaged in child labour in cocoa production, according to the survey, and most of those were involved in tasks considered hazardous, such as wielding machetes, carrying heavy loads or working with pesticides. Because of changes in methodology, the number of child labourers in the new survey is not comparable with that of the first survey, researchers said. The surveyors defined child labourers as those children working below the age of 12, or children between 12 and 18 years old who work beyond allowable hours, or any children taking part in hazardous tasks.
Industry representatives said that one of the issues is that it is difficult to verify which harvests come from which farms, making enforcement of labour standards problematic, although the Washington Post said nonprofits have found this puzzling, given the large amounts of money constantly flowing into the sector. Large U.S. chocolatiers, said the Post, added that they are responsible for only so much of the chocolate supply, and that 40 percent of cocoa produced is done under the auspices of smaller companies that may not have the same standards as they do. On the continuing prevalence of child labour in the industry, spokespeople suggested that perhaps the initial goals were too lofty.
Several nonprofit groups blame the companies for falling far short of the responsibilities they assumed under their pledge in 2001. They question how an industry that rings up an estimated $103 billion in annual sales could have made so little, if any, progress over 20 years.