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Eliminate Child Labor from Cocoa by Emphasizing Children, Not PR Claims

The convergence of Fair Trade Month (October) and Halloween makes it hard not to think about chocolate and kids. Not just the kids who eat the chocolate, but also the child slaves who harvest the cocoa.

There is one particular moment from the 2013 meeting of the World Fair Trade Organization that I come back to periodically. A representative of Fairtrade International (FLO) was presenting and a slide of some of their global fair trade licensees came up, which included many well-known brands, among them Nestlé. A woman in the middle of my row gasped and yelled out “Nestlé?” then said it a few more times, looking around, like she could not believe she was understanding correctly and wanted to know if the rest of us had come to the same understanding. How could Nestlé, one of the most hated companies in the world, due to its history of labor and human rights abuses, theft of public water for private profit, and marketing of breast milk substitutes to impoverished women in the Global South, carry a fair trade seal on any of its products?

Yet they can and they do, because fair trade labelers like FLO and Fair Trade USA look only at single ingredients or products, not at the practices of the company. Plenty of critics see Nestlé’s use of fair trade labeling on products such as Kit Kats sold in the UK as a way to “divert criticism and gain undeserved publicity,” and by extension market share. But this bare minimum approach is harming society’s most vulnerable members — its children.

Here in the United States, a long-fought “Raise the Bar” campaign targeting Hershey led to the announcement in 2012 that the company would have all cocoa certified by UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, or Fair Trade USA by 2020. To date, about 40% has been certified, though the impact this has had on cocoa farmers on the ground is up for debate. All three certifiers prohibit child labor on certified farms, one of the key problems that is rampant in the cocoa industry, but only Fair Trade USA directly addresses the price farmers are paid, despite the fact this is a sector known for low prices paid to farmers, which in turn has been linked to low wages and labor abuse of workers. Hershey benefited from a public relations boost just by making an announcement about eventually achieving certification, before any supply chains were even audited and without guaranteeing fair payments to farmers or living wages to workers.

There is growing concern for the more than 2 million children in West Africa working in the cocoa sector, many of whom work without pay or perform dangerous work. Yet there has been disagreement about how to address it. Is it sufficient to allow companies like Nestlé and Hershey to continue on this path of corporate-led, certification-based incremental change, praised and rewarded with seals of approval at every turn?

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