The companies’ statement also acknowledged that cocoa is a “major driver” of deforestation, an environmental abuse linked to global warming.
“Most cocoa growers live in poverty, and the cocoa poverty trap has led to the widespread use of child labour,” read a statement issued by Mars Wrigley, Mondelez, Barry Callebaut and other companies. Mondelez is the parent company of Cadbury, and Barry Callebaut is one of the largest exporters of cocoa from West Africa. “The situation remains despite some progress with a multitude of initiatives over past decades,” the statement said.
Critically, the companies called for the European Union, where most cocoa is imported, to pass legislation that would require companies to be responsible for guarding against human rights violations and environmental abuses in their cocoa supply chains. It would require companies to adopt preventive measures and subject them to independent third-party audits. The companies would also publish annual reports on their programs and the results.
Officials with Nestlé and Hershey told The Washington Post they also support the proposed “due diligence” regulation, and Hershey said the company supports similar legislation in the United States.
Complaints about child labor and deforestation in their cocoa supply chains have plagued the large chocolate companies for years.
Most cocoa comes from West Africa, much of it from impoverished small farmers. Some put their own children to work rather than sending them to school. Others employ children trafficked into cocoa-growing areas for work.
Voluntary efforts by the chocolate companies to halt the practices in the cocoa farms have fallen far short of goals.
In 2001, under an agreement called the Harkin-Engel Protocol, chocolate companies promised to eradicate child labor from their supply chains by 2005. The companies have repeatedly extended the deadline, however. In 2015, a U.S. Labor Department report estimated that more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions.
As the shortcomings of the Harkin-Engel Protocol became clear, many of the chocolate companies sought a different way to assure critics. They announced they were buying cocoa from farms whose operations had been “certified” to high standards by one of three nonprofit groups: Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance or Utz. Those groups were supposed to inspect farms for use of child labor and harmful environmental practices.
But as a Post report in October showed, the inspections by Utz, which certified more cocoa than any other group, were spotty at best. Ivory Coast farms certified by Utz were more likely — not less — to employ child labor. Moreover, despite environmental rules, thousands of Ivory Coast farms certified by Utz were located in nationally protected forests.
In response, officials with Utz, now merged with Rainforest Alliance, said the organization is taking steps to improve oversight in West Africa. The farms inside nationally protected forests represented only a small portion of Utz-approved operations, the officials said, adding that more child labor being reported on Utz-approved farms was the result of “more awareness” of the problem.
But critics said the inspection shortfalls showed that such efforts were not good enough.
“We’ve learned the voluntary efforts aren’t going to cut it,” said Antonie Fountain, managing director of the VOICE network, which has sought changes in the cocoa industry. “One of the reasons we haven’t solved the problems of child labor and deforestation is because nobody had to.”
The initiative by the chocolate companies comes at a time of growing public pressure and unrest within the industry.
In Ivory Coast and Ghana over the summer, officials added a “living income premium” of $400 to the price of every ton of exported cocoa, a move they said would help ease the farmer poverty that is believed to contribute to child labor. The global price of cocoa rose to a one-year high in November but has since slumped, out of concern that the Ivorian price hike might lead to oversupply.
Ivory Coast officials also signed an agreement with neighboring Burkina Faso enabling them to repatriate children who travel unaccompanied to work on cocoa farms. Though child labor is restricted in Ivory Coast and Ghana, laws have been widely ignored.
In the United States, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), citing a Post report, urged U.S. customs officials to block imports of cocoa products that have relied on forced labor. In response, customs officials said they are investigating and have visited the Ivory Coast. As a result, some chocolate companies are considering how to respond to a possible crackdown on West African cocoa.
Last month, the Cocoa Merchants’ Association of America held a webinar for about 30 companies in which attorneys explained how the companies might comply with any U.S. action on cocoa imports.
“Your brand and your customer relationships are at stake,” stated the presentation, which described steps companies could take to comply with the law and prove that a shipment did not involve forced labor.
Noting that U.S. customs officials could stop cocoa shipments at the border, Hugo van der Goes, chairman of the association, said, “We want to make sure our members are prepared for it.”
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.