One of the world's biggest chocolate producers announced today that it will begin investigations into child labour practices in its Ivory Coast cocoa production chain. Nestlé, the Swiss chocolate giant, says that it will seek to join the Fair Labor Association, which would make it the first food company to apply to the non-profit labour rights organization. The FLA will send independent auditors to Ivory Coast in January to examine the company's cocoa supply chain.
The cocoa industry - and the worldwide trade in sweets and chocolates that it supplies - has long had to contend with a growing reputation for child exploitation. In Ivory Coast, which accounts for 40% of the world's cocoa production, the U.S. state department estimates that over 100,000 children work in the cocoa industry, and many are victims of human trafficking and slavery.
The issue is prevalent enough that Nestlé and other chocolate makers signed an agreement way back in 2001 (the Harkin-Engel Protocol) in which they agreed to vastly reduce the industry's reliance on child labour, but so far there has been little demonstrable change.
Earlier this year, Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that removing child labour from the African cocoa harvest is "almost impossible," citing the difficulty face by small-time farmers in rural areas managing a harvest without the help of their children. At the time Brabeck-Letmathe announced that, rather than eliminating child labour, his company instead wanted to invest in education for those children who worked in the cocoa fields - a concept he referred to as "creating shared value."
"If they have the access to good schooling, then the child labor as such if it is helping the fathers in the field and helping with the harvesting, I don't think this is a problem," he said. "The problem is when you use the children only for that and don't allow them to go to school."
So what happened? Nestlé still appears committed to the shared value concept, but evidently sees partnering with the FLA - an organization already known for its work investigating the labour practices of firms such as Nike - as a useful step forward. (A step that has apparently been 10 years in the making.)
The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley recently presented this report from the Ivory Coast cocoa industry. The U.K. broadcaster also presented The Bitter Truth in 2010, an investigative series on the subject: