Child labor on cocoa farms

NGO coalition urges EU legislators to end child labor on cocoa farms as chocolate companies embrace ‘level-playing field’

By Douglas Yu

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: Daniel Rosenthal
Pic: Daniel Rosenthal
Voice Network, an association of NGOs and trade unions, has urged EU policy makers to make mandatory compliance with Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) to end human rights violations and environmental destruction in cocoa supply chains.

Once the law gets passed, chocolate manufacturers will be required to report on child labor cases and on measures taken to address them, said Antonie Fountain, managing director at Voice Network.

Future reporting will also be based on standard and common definitions, which require harmonization of legislation across different jurisdictions and markets, he added.

“We are not on track with our child labor reduction target or on just any other goals that we have in cocoa sustainability,”​ Fountain said during the recent EU Parliament hearing on human rights.

“Let me put it bluntly: we are not going to make it SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) 8.7, [which aims at eradicating child labor globally by 2025], if we continue at our current speed.”

He noted, even though the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) is currently implementing the best industry practice, ending child labor remains a far-fetched goal. 

“The ICI’s ambition is to reach 400,000 children [working on cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana] by 2020. If it achieves its 50% child labor reduction target, they would need to get 200,000 children out of the work force, which is still only about 9% [of all working children],”​ he said.

That is why a mandatory compliance is needed to speed up the process.

Companies warming up with regulations again

The root of the child labor issue, according to Fountain, is chocolate manufacturers’ hesitation to embrace regulations. That scenario was particularly evident 20 years ago.

“The whole conversation about eradicating child labor started in 2000 with an amendment to an agricultural reform bill, which was going to ban all cocoa beans made with slaves in the US,” he said.

“It passed the House of Representatives, but faced heavy loads of industry lobby that went against it. So the bill was replaced with an industry-wide promise to voluntarily eliminate child labor.

“Historically speaking, we saw quite a strong industry pushback against legislation,” ​he added.

However, those promises, whether they are demonstrated through certification logos on chocolate products’ packaging or companies’ sustainability progress reports, have not led to any significant results, said Fountain.

The ICI also recently identified nearly 15,000 child labor cases​ on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana since 2012, and that number does not include other regions and farming sectors.

That was how manufacturers, including Mondelēz, started to realize the importance of re-embracing regulations, Fountain told ConfectioneryNews, noting that establishing a “level-playing field”​ is in these companies’ own interests.

Fountain said voicing the idea of standardizing sustainability practice at the EU Parliament meeting is only the first step.

The biggest challenge, however, is getting the support from the European Commission, which is responsible for proposing legislation and implementing decisions.

“The European Commission is more of an executive branch than the parliament, and it tends to be more conservative… Even though some steps are being taken, I don’t expect them to make a decision any time soon,”​ he added. “The next step is what exactly needs to be included in that law. It will be quite an interesting discussion.”

Will US chocolate companies apply to EU laws?

Fountain told us the legislation Voice Network is calling upon is “not a direct ban on child labor… it’s much more of a compliance with HRDD, which falls into the United Nation’s (UN) guidelines of principles on businesses and human rights.”

“That requires companies to do assessment not just on child labor but on a broader level of human rights, and to start putting remedies in place to address those issues. So it’s much more of a process-based approach,”​ he explained.

Fountain added the law might not have a direct impact in the US. However, when US chocolate companies sell their products in Europe, they need to comply with it.

“Europe consumes over 50% of the global chocolate, and it is a bigger market than the US… Having the legislation passed in Europe in the first place will have a bigger impact on the entire cocoa sector,” ​he said.

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