Under pressure from Congress in 2001, some of the world’s largest chocolatiers — including Nestlé, Hershey and Mars — pledged to eradicate “the worst forms of child labor” from their sources in West Africa, the world’s most important supply. Since then, however, the firms have missed deadlines to eliminate child labor in 2005, 2008 and 2010.
Each time, they have promised to do better, but the new report indicates that the incidence of child labor in West African cocoa production has risen.
A Washington Post investigation of the use of child labor in the cocoa industry found that representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands could not guarantee that any of their chocolate was produced without child labor. One reason is that 20 years after pledging to eradicate the practice, chocolate companies still could not identify the farms where all their cocoa comes from, let alone whether child labor was used in producing it.
The prevalence of child labor among agricultural households in cocoa-growing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two primary suppliers, increased from 31 percent to 45 percent between 2008 and 2019, according to the Labor Department survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.
Nearly 1.6 million children were engaged in child labor in cocoa production, according to the survey, and most of those were involved in tasks considered hazardous, such as wielding machetes, carrying heavy loads or working with pesticides. Because of changes in methodology, the number of child laborers in the new survey is not comparable with that of the first survey, researchers said. The surveyors defined child laborers as those children working below the age of 12, or children between 12 and 18 years old who work beyond allowable hours, or any children taking part in hazardous tasks.
“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,” according to a statement from Richard Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry group representing companies handling about 80 percent of the world’s cocoa supply chain.
In addressing the report, Scobey identified no industry failures. Instead, he suggested that the goals for reducing child labor may have been too lofty.
The targets “were set without fully understanding the complexity and scale of a challenge heavily associated with poverty in rural Africa,” he said in his statement.
“Companies alone cannot solve the problem,” he said, noting also that cocoa production has increased.
Several nonprofit groups blame the companies, however, for falling far short of the responsibilities they assumed under their pledge in 2001. They question how an industry that rings up an estimated $103 billion in annual sales could have made so little, if any, progress over 20 years.
In December, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in a case against Nestlé and Cargill involving a group of Malians who say that as adolescents, they were forced to work on Ivory Coast cocoa farms.
Although the lawsuit and the Post investigation focus on forced child labor, often from children brought in from other countries, the figures in the new report do not count those workers.
The “issue of forced child labor in cocoa production is important and deserves attention,” the report said, but counting forced child laborers would require a different methodology.
After The Post’s article was published, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened an investigation into forced child labor on Ivorian cocoa farms, and sent personnel there. The outcome of that inquiry is unknown.
Terrence Collingsworth, one of the attorneys representing the Malian plaintiffs, said the problem of child labor — forced or not — arises because the 2001 pledge from the companies entailed no enforcement.
“These serious human rights violations require mandatory rules with serious penalties, not empty promises from cocoa companies profiting from the exploitation of children,” he said.
Regarding the lawsuit, a Nestlé statement said: “All involved agree that Nestlé never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit. This lawsuit does not advance the shared goal of ending child labor in the cocoa industry because it does not address the root causes of the issue and will not improve the conditions in West Africa.”
Cargill likewise has said it has taken steps to monitor for and eradicate child labor from its West African suppliers.
In response to the new report, the chocolate companies point to programs they’ve set up to try to monitor farms for child labor, and say they aim to expand those.
Jeff Beckman, a Hershey spokesman, said that another study by NORC shows that “where company programs are in place, child labor was reduced by one-third, showing these programs are having a positive impact and emphasizing the need to further scale these programs.” He added that the programs by “larger industry players … touch about 60% of the cocoa produced in West Africa, which means their positive impact does not reach the other approximately 40% of cocoa produced."
Other smaller players must get involved, Beckman said.
In response to the new survey, Mars noted in a statement that it has committed $1 billion to “help fix a broken supply chain.”
“The problem of child labor is bigger than any one entity, and the solution must be grounded in an unwavering commitment to action and collaboration between farmers, communities, civil society, business, and government,” the company said.
The new report, however, stands as a dismal conclusion to the high hopes inspired by the 2001 company pledge, which was negotiated by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and has become known as the Harkin-Engel protocol.
It is unclear whether the United States will continue to monitor company efforts to reduce child labor. The Harkin-Engel protocol is set to expire next year.