GENEVA (AN) — Almost two decades ago, the $100 billion chocolate industry promised the International Labor Organization it would eliminate child slavery on West African cocoa plantations. A new report on Monday finds that pledge not only remains unfulfilled — things have gotten worse.
The detailed report commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department and carried out by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found the industry's use of child labor in its supply chains is on the rise.
As of last year, 1.56 million children between the ages of five and 17 were being used as laborers in cocoa production, including 790,000 in Ivory Coast and 770,000 in Ghana, the two countries that are the main global suppliers.
Among the cocoa-growing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana, the report said, the prevalence of child labor in agricultural households rose to 45%, up from 31%, between 2008 and 2019. The proportion of children exposed to any of the major types of hazardous work in cocoa production in those two nations rose to 43%, up from 30%, during that same time.
As many as 95% of those children — 1.48 million — were "exposed to at least one component of hazardous child labor in cocoa production," according to the 301-page final NORC report. Those included all but 20,000 of the child laborers in Ivory Coast, and all but 60,000 of those in Ghana.
Dangers faced by the children included the use of machetes, heavy loads, exposure to pesticides, night shifts and long working hours. For the purposes of the survey, child laborers were sorted into several categories: workers under the age of 12; those between the ages of 12 and 18 working unacceptably long hours; and those doing hazardous tasks.
The report shows how little has changed since chocolate makers, under pressure in U.S. Congress, signed an international agreement with ILO in 2001 to rid supply chains of child labor. The deal negotiated by two Democratic lawmakers, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Eliot Engel of New York, is called the Harkin-Engel Protocol.
'A persistent challenge'
Richard Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry group of about 100 companies that represent more than 80% of the global cocoa supply chain, insisted child labor has no place in the cocoa supply chain.
"As this report shows, there are today still too many children in cocoa farming doing work for which they are too young, or work that endangers them," Scobey said in a statement included in the NORC report.
Scobey described child labor as "a persistent challenge" in Ivory Coast and Ghana, "despite major efforts by the governments, companies, cocoa-growing communities, and development partners."
And, as if to explain the industry's failure to eradicate child labor from its global supply chains, he said the industry signed onto the ILO agreement "without fully understanding the complexity and scale of a challenge associated with poverty in rural Africa."
In 2011, however, the world's biggest food company, Nestlé, agreed to have the Fair Labor Association investigate child labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms that supplied its factories.
The international organization, based in the U.S. and Switzerland, evolved from a U.S. task force in the Clinton White House. It began independently auditing the Swiss-based food giant's operations, which offered Nestlé a PR strategy similar to how the major shoe and apparel makers sought to deflect criticism of child labor in so-called sweatshops.
The audits have found child labor remains pervasive, but some areas improved. "Overall, interventions to increase awareness of child labor and encourage school attendance appear to be gaining traction," its latest audit from earlier this month concluded.
"The assessment results," it continued, "show that awareness campaigns must be sustained and further improved to ensure that families and children understand the types of light work that children may undertake on family farms, the age at which they can undertake light work, and the allowable hours per day and per week."