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Nestle, Hershey, And Other Chocolate Companies Are Still Using Child Labor

By Danielle Dorsey

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Consumers have another good reason to resist the temptation to buy chocolate bars in their grocery stores and it has nothing to do with calories or sugar. According to a new Washington Post investigation, it’s likely that most of the chocolate bars sold in the United States are the product of child labor.

About two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West African nations where, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions.

This isn’t new information. A 2001 report titled  “A Taste of Slavery: How Your Chocolate May be Tainted,” detailed horrifying conditions in West African countries like the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, claiming that traffickers promised child laborers paid work, housing, and education and then forcibly held them on farms where they worked up to 100 hours per week and endured severe abuse.

At the time, Democratic representative Eliot L. Engel introduced legislation that would have created a federal labeling system to indicate whether trafficked minors had been used in the growing and harvesting cocoa. The measure passed the House, but the chocolate industry reassured lawmakers that the problem was already being addressed and did not warrant government regulation.

Instead, government officials negotiated an agreement with big chocolate companies to eradicate child labor from their supply chains and create “standards of public certification,” that would indicate that cocoa products had been produced “without any of the worst forms of child labor.”

Top officials from Hershey, Mars, Nestlé USA, and five other chocolate companies signed the deal, called the Harkins-Engel Protocol, which specified a 2005 deadline. The lawmakers gave the signing companies “primary responsibility” in eliminating child labor, but the Ivorian government, labor organizations, and a consumer group also signed the protocol.

The 2005 deadline came and went. In 2007, industry officials squabbled over creating consumer labels that promised child labor was not involved in the making of their chocolate bars. Instead, the industry reinterpreted the agreement to mean that companies would produce statistics on West African “labor conditions” and “the levels” of child labor in West Africa.

In 2011, industry officials admitted that fulfilling their agreement promise was an almost impossible task and began trying to outsource it to third party organizations like Fair Trade, Utz and Rainforest Alliance.

Over the past decade, chocolate companies have pledged to buy increasing amounts of cocoa certified by one of these three groups. Mars reports buying about half of its cocoa from certified sources; Hershey reports 80 percent. In exchange for meeting the groups’ standards, farmers are paid up to 10 percent more for their cocoa.

Industry officials admit that these certifications still do not guarantee that child labor is not involved in the production of popular chocolate bars. Inspections by the groups are typically announced in advance, with only 1 in 10 farms required to participate annually.

According to a 2017 report by Nestle, “When the [certification] auditors came, the children were ushered from the fields and when interviewed, the farmers denied they were ever there.”

Industry officials insist that these efforts will continue to fall short until they receive full cooperation from local governments. For their part, the Ivory Coast passed laws in 2010 and 2016 that defined and set penalties for child labor. Schools have been built in rural areas to curb child trafficking, but with an annual budget of $5,000, the government lacks funds to enforce these laws.

The latest deadline that chocolate companies have set for themselves arrives in 2020 and scales back their original goal of eliminating child labor to reducing it by 70 percent. That goal is unlikely to be met and there is still no clear plan for providing consumer labels.

Current pilot programs use local farmers to check farms for child laborers and provides financial assistance in sending any found child laborers to school. Other experts argue that the easiest way to address the issue of child labor is to simply pay the farmers more for the cocoa.

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