Children younger than 15 continue to work at cocoa farms connected to Nestlé, more than a decade after the food company promised to end the use of child labour in its supply chain.
A new report by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), commissioned by Nestlé, saw researchers visit 260 farms used by the company in Ivory Coast from September to December 2014. The researchers found 56 workers under the age of 18, of which 27 were under 15.
At one farm in the Divo district of the country, the FLA found evidence of forced labour, with a young worker not receiving any salary for a year’s work at a farm.
Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, the raw ingredient that makes chocolate. The industry is estimated to be worth close to £60 billion a year.
Researchers from the FLA, which was commissioned by Nestlé to investigate workers rights on its west African farms in 2013 amid international pressure, found child workers at 7% of the farms visited. Nestlé’s code of conduct prohibits the use of child labour in its supply chain.
Though researchers found Nestlé had made substantial efforts to inform farmers about its code of conduct, awareness of the code was low among farmers, with farmers sometimes unable to attend training sessions due to either “lack of interest or time”. The FLA also found that farms lacked any kind of age verification system for workers to stop the use of child labour.
A total of 24 children were found working on farms as “family workers”, unable to attend school, as they worked alongside their parents and siblings on plantations. On farms employing children they were expected to work in hazardous conditions and carry out dangerous tasks, including using machetes and transporting heavy loads.
Allegations of child labour and workers rights abuses have dogged Nestlé for years. In 2001 Nestlé signed the Harkin-Engel protocol, a voluntary agreement by members of the cocoa industry and politicians to work towards ending the worst forms of child labour.
But four years later, in 2005, noted human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth filed a lawsuit against the company and Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, alleging that the companies gave substantial assistance to plantation owners who used forced child labour.
In court documents, the three plaintiffs claim that they were trafficked from their homes in neighbouring west African countries and put to work on plantations on Ivory Coast. They describe how they were whipped, beaten and forced to work for 14 hours a day before retiring to dank, dark rooms without windows to rest. One plaintiff, referred to in the case as John Doe II recounted how guards would slice open the feet of any child worker who were caught trying to escape.
The case has been tied up in the appellate courts for years, and the companies have recently stated their intention to take the child workers’ successful appeal in the ninth circuit court of appeals to the US supreme court.
Commenting on the FLA’s findings, Collingsworth said the report challenged corporate assurances that chocolate manufacturers were dealing with the problem of child labour.
“This FLA report, and others before it, show that allowing the companies to act ‘voluntarily’ to clean up their problem has not, and will not, work. There are lots of options that would work, including rigorous monitoring by an independent monitor who has authority to take corrective action,” he said.
“Doing nothing more now will leave the child workers unprotected until the litigation we have pursued is finally before a jury. We can’t say when that will be and should not accept more delay in addressing a resolvable problem.”
The International Labour Organisation estimates there are as many as 59 million African children, aged 5-17, involved in hazardous work today. Human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch have written that Ivory Coast is yet to come to terms with its history of civil conflict.
Nestlé has repeatedly stated its commitment to tackling child labour in its supply chain, and has already taken action to address the issues raised in the FLA report. These actions include increasing access to education, stepping up systems of age verification at farms and increasing awareness of the company’s own code of conduct.
A Nestlé spokesperson told the Guardian: “To date we have identified 3,933 children working on their family farms (around 10% of the children surveyed) who were involved in hazardous tasks classified as child labour. We have included half of them in our Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System, which includes providing school kits, obtaining birth certificates and developing income generating activities for the families of 312 identified children. Unfortunately, the scale and complexity of the issue is such that no company sourcing cocoa from Ivory Coast can guarantee that it has completely removed the risk of child labour from its supply chain.”
She added: “Where we have evidence that we’re making a difference, we will seek to scale up efforts in these areas. We are already planning to scale up the Monitoring and Remediation system to other producing countries, with a near-term priority being Ghana. We’ll continue to work with the government and our partners to improve standards across the industry.”