Child labor in the cocoa industry has long been a hot topic embroiling nations, big chocolate companies, consumers, and more. Although some children may simply be assisting their family financially, many are victims of what the International Labor Organization defines as the “Worst Forms of Child Labor,” which includes work that is “likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.” (ilo.org) In an effort to source sustainable cocoa and end the use of child labor in the cocoa industry, some big chocolate companies have devised their own plans and certification programs meant to indicate their commitment to the cause. The Nestle company in particular has branded itself as the big chocolate company that is doing the most to eliminate child labor (Nestle Tackling Child Labor report).
Despite the recent efforts, the problem of child labor has actually gotten worse. In a study that was conducted in 2013 and 2014, the number of children aged 5 through 17 years who worked in dangerous conditions on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire grew by 260,700 in just 5 years (Tulane Report). While Nestle has made a comparatively thorough analysis of the problem of child labor in their supply chain through the creation of their own independent certification plan, the Cocoa Plan, many of their methods are opaque or inadequate; therefore, the plan may vindicate Nestle to the public, but does not go far enough to actually eliminate child labor.
Recent outrage over the issue of child labor on cocoa farms can be partially traced to the 2000 film Slavery: A Global Investigation that details the dangerous working conditions on Côte d’Ivoire cocoa farms (True Vision). After the release of the film and “following pressure and outrage from civil society groups and media outlets, large chocolate and cocoa corporations –– including Nestlé –– responded by claiming that they did not know about the situation and, like the public, were concerned.” Despite this supposed outrage, “For the past 15 years, Nestle and its partners in the Cocoa Industry have been intensely resisting government regulation regarding eliminating WFCL in their global cocoa supply chain” (Wood 4). In this context of mixed signals and discrepancy between Nestle’s actions and what they publicly displayed, Nestle launched their Cocoa Plan in 2009. The plan is both an initiative and certification program that aims to improve farmer training, plant propagation, and improve work conditions, especially for children (Nestle “The Cocoa Plan” 2009)
One part of the Cocoa Plan that is honorable, and stands in contrast with how Cadbury handled slave labor in its supply chain during the early 1900’s, is that Nestle clearly and quickly acknowledges that child labor is present in its supply chain. Nearly a century before the outrage that prompted Nestle to create its Cocoa Plan came concern that slave labor was present in the Portuguese West African cocoa farms that Cadbury sourced from. In response, Cadbury hired Joseph Burtt to investigate the issue. However, “Burtt’s report…appeared more than six years after Cadbury Bros. first learned that slave labor was used in the growing of cocoa beans in Sao Tome and Principe and four years after the company decided to hire an agent to visit Portuguese West Africa” (Satre 98). Cadbury and another chocolate firm, Rowntree, were concerned about the implications of releasing such a report that indicated their use of slave labor. Therefore, it took an unusual amount of time for Cadbury to publish its findings and admit to the problem. Even with the evidence, William Cadbury remained skeptical of the scope of the issue and “while he was against the use of slave labor, he did not equate the labor of Sao Tome to that of other forms of slavery reported in Africa” (Satre 19).
Rather than withholding the truth or questioning the reality of labor conditions in West Africa, Nestle admits in the Cocoa Plan that “We know there are children working on farms in Cote d’Ivoire in areas where we source cocoa. No company sourcing cocoa here can guarantee they’ve eliminated the risk of children working in their supply chain” (Nestle Cocoa Plan Better Lives). As the Fortune video indicates, big chocolate companies often claim plausible deniability when it comes to child labor since there are many middlemen that stand between them and the actual laborers. As Brian O’Keefe acknowledges in the video, consumers are now demanding that big chocolate companies like Nestle take responsibility (O’Keefe). Therefore, Nestle sets itself apart from other chocolate companies and appeals to consumers’ desire for transparency by admitting to the issue. However, even in their statement admitting responsibility, Nestle still inserts a phrase that absolves them from any actual wrongdoing. By claiming that there is no company sourcing from Cote d’Ivoire that can ‘guarantee’ that there is no child labor in their supply chain, Nestle admits to the problem, but does not admit to guilt. Nestle’s Code of Conduct prohibits child labor and Nestle’s Executive Vice-President for Operations admits that “The use of child labour in our cocoa supply chain goes against everything we stand for” (Clarke, Nestle Cocoa Plan Better Lives). Despite their adamant position against child labor, Nestle continues to source from areas where it is endemic. While the effectiveness of boycotts is debated, still sourcing from areas with areas known for child labor indicates that Nestle adheres more to its moral mission in speech than it does in action.
Nestle’s methods in its child labor monitoring and remediation program are inefficient and the scope of the program is relatively minimal. Nestle advertises in its Cocoa Plan that “In 2017, 51% of children identified are no longer in child labour” (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). While this initially seems like a significant improvement, it is important to distinguished how and how many children are ‘identified.’ The method in which child laborers are identified is outlined in Step 2 of the remediation program: “A child is spotted (or self-declares) engaging in a hazardous activity” (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). This is an extremely inefficient method since spotting child laborers requires a large number of personnel traveling from farm to farm observing practices. Self-declaring is also an unlikely occurrence as some children may not know the dangers associated with their labor and if they did, they may be too scared to report anything as it might implicate their family. Therefore, the number of children actually identified by Nestle is likely relatively low when compared to the true number. The lack of detailed information in the Cocoa Plan around this issue was picked up by an investigative report from the Watson Institute at Brown University, which states that “The researcher is unable to decipher what proportion of Nestle’s co-ops have Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation Systems. This is problematic because it serves as a barrier to criticizing Nestle for not taking enough action” (Wood 10). Essentially, Nestle provides vague information to indicate that it is taking some degree of action, but the extent of its action and operations remains a mystery. Furthermore, The Cocoa Plan itself hardly covers a majority of Nestle’s Cocoa. In fact, only “Around a third of Nestlé’s total global cocoa supply is currently bought from producers covered by the Nestlé Cocoa Plan” (Wood 10). Therefore, it can be estimated that the areas covered by this child labor monitoring and remediation program are a similarly small proportion. Even cocoa that is completely certified under the Cocoa Plan is not a guarantee that it has not been produced using child labor. Nestle admits that “7,002 Children [were] identified working on farms or in communities covered by the Nestlé Cocoa Plan” (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). This strips the certification program of clarity and even some of its legitimacy when it comes to child labor, as Nestle wishes to eliminate child labor, but still allows cocoa made with it to pass their certification.
One strong aspect of the Cocoa Plan is its analysis of the barriers children in cocoa growing regions face in receiving an education. While education is certainly important to the well-being of the children, it is still not the most effective way to end child labor. Nestle began its school building program in West Africa in 2011 and has since built or refurbished over 42 schools (Nestle Cocoa Plan Better Lives). While this is certainly a laudable achievement, Nestle also recognizes that children face far more nuanced obstacles than simply not having a school building. One such obstacle for girls in particular is that “Many schools in Côte d’Ivoire do not have toilets. Girls find this particularly difficult as they have to go further into the bush to relieve themselves. There, they are at greater risk of being bitten by snakes or insects, and there have also been cases of girls being harassed” (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). The lack of toilets may cause girls to miss school more often and may negatively affect their performance when they are in school. Another key obstacle that Nestle identifies is the “lack of a birth certificate, which is compulsory for entry to secondary education. Since the start of the programme we have enabled 4,517 children to continue their education by providing them with a birth certificate” (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). Therefore, Nestle shows that they have a more in depth and comprehensive understanding of and action plan when it comes to education. They both address the lack of physical buildings, while also addressing challenges to attending school in the first place. However, one important statistic that is tucked away in the Cocoa Plan report is that 17.5% of children who attend schools in Cote d’Ivoire also participate in child labor versus 23.4% of children who do not attend schools (Nestle Cocoa Plan 2017). This is a relatively minor decrease and indicates that access to an education is not a panacea for preventing children from working. The children who go to school still have to work face a serious burden, indicating that child labor is not just a result of a lack of alternatives, but is a result of greater challenges.
The Cocoa Plan lacks a plan to implement a crucial method to ending child labor: ensuring that the parents can earn enough to support their family. A March 2018 report by Stop the Traffik notes that while Nestle provides farmers with training and help improving productivity, it “Has yet to commit to paying farmers more for their cocoa and does not currently have any long-term plans for a living income” (A Matter of Taste). Writer Beth Hoffman argues in her Forbes article, 4 Reasons Why Nestle Cocoa Plan is Not Enough, that “The only way to truly ensure children can go to school is to guarantee their parents a living wage” (Hoffman). Thus, Nestle has outlined an elaborate plan that helps farmers and childrens in a myriad of ways, except for perhaps the most effective way. While they publicize that they are committed to eliminating child labor, their actions again indicate that their words do not match their actions.
Another flaw of the Cocoa Plan is the fact that it is a certification program in the first place. Fairtrade, another certification that sets various environmental and social standards and aims to pay growers a higher premium for their crops, has high levels of trust and recognition among consumers in Europe and the USA (Globescan). Consumers may not readily understand or recognize the Cocoa Plan in the same way. This may complicate decision making for consumers who may simply begin to overlook certifications in general. Beth Hoffman argues that “With more than 200 “ecolabels” now available on products, it is impossible for consumers to know (let alone verify) that every seal or logo claiming sustainability is actually making a clear difference in the world” (Hoffman). This issue of verification is important. Although Fairtrade has its own flaws, the fact that it is a 3rd party certification gives it legitimacy and a reputation as unbiased, which builds trust among consumers that the chocolate will actually benefit growers instead of just big chocolate companies.
In an economic system where companies sometimes have just as much agency and ability as a country to enact social and economic change, it is honorable to see the Nestle Company acknowledge the problem of child labor in the cocoa that it sources and outline steps it is taking to eliminate it. Although the Cocoa Plan may sound adequate to the general public, looking at its nuances reveals how some parts may be flawed, misleading, or incomplete. Overall, the Cocoa Plan does not seem to go far enough as it does not include some of the most effective ways of ending child labor. As the Nestle Cocoa Plan plays out, the ability for profit driven companies to effect social change will be put to the test.
2013/14 Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas. Report. School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Tulane University. July 30, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2018. http://www.childlaborcocoa.org/images/Payson_Reports/Tulane University – Survey Research on Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector – 30 July 2015.pdf.
A Matter of Taste. Report. STOP THE TRAFFIK Australia Coalition, 2018.
“Better Lives.” Nestle Cocoa Plan. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://www.nestlecocoaplan.com/better-lives/.
Clarke, Joe Sandler. “Child Labour on Nestlé Farms: Chocolate Giant’s Problems Continue.” The Guardian. September 02, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/sep/02/child-labour-on-nestle-farms-chocolate-giants-problems-continue.
Globescan. “High Trust and Global Recognition Makes Fairtrade an Enabler of Ethical Consumer Choice.” News release, October 11, 2011. Globescan. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://globescan.com/high-trust-and-global-recognition-makes-fairtrade-an-enabler-of-ethical-consumer-choice/.
Hoffman, Beth. “Love Chocolate? 4 Reasons Why Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan Is Not Enough.” Forbes. May 22, 2013. Accessed May 01, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2013/05/22/4-reasons-why-nestles-cocoa-plan-is-not-enough/1.
Nestle. “Nestlé and Sustainable Cocoa ‘The Cocoa Plan’.” News release, October 2009. Nestle.com. Accessed May 1, 2018. http://www.nestle.com/asset-library/documents/media/news-and-features/2009-october/the-cocoa-plan.pdf.
O’Keefe, Brian. “Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem.” Fortune. March 01, 2016. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/.
Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio Univ.Press, 2005.
Slavery: A Global Investigation. Directed by Brian Woods and Kate Blewett. True Vision, 2000. Accessed May 1, 2018. https://truevisiontv.com/films/details/90/slavery-a-global-investigation.
Tackling Child Labor. Report. 2017. Accessed May 1, 2018. https://www.nestlecocoaplanreport.com/sites/default/files/2017-10/NestleCocoaPlanReport2017_EN_0.pdf.
Wood, Madeleine. An Investigation Into Nestle’s Efforts To Establish Credibility In Its Global Cocoa Supply Chain. Master’s thesis, Brown University, 2015. Watson Institute. 4-10.
“Worst Forms of Child Labour.” International Labor Organization. Accessed May 01, 2018. http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/WorstFormsoffChildLabour/lang–en/index.htm.