Tim Newman, Campaigns Director, International Labor Rights ForumNine years after the chocolate industry committed to eliminating the worst forms of child labor in cocoa production, the chocolate industry has finally admitted that hundreds of thousands of children pick their
cocoa under exploitative conditions. However, the industry still refuses to end this exploitation of children. A new report released today by ILRF examines the recent developments in industry initiatives to eliminate labor rights abuses in the cocoa industry -- check out the report online here.
When reports surfaced about highly abusive conditions in the West African cocoa industry in 2001, the US House of Representatives passed legislation requiring chocolate companies to label their chocolate child-labor free. However, before the bill got to the Senate, the chocolate industry successfully got out of dealing with binding legislation by convincing lawmakers that instead, they would develop a voluntary agreement to work toward elimination of child labor in the cocoa industry. The agreement, referred to as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, was signed in September 2001 by major chocolate companies and required them, among other things, to "develop and implement credible, mutually-acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standards of public certification, consistent with applicable federal law, that cocoa beans and their derivative products have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor" by July 1, 2005.
After several missed deadlines, the chocolate industry finally developed its so-called "certification" system, which are surveys of labor conditions on cocoa farms conducted by the governments of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. The "certification" program does not contain any standards for labor rights protections and has been critiqued by observers for a range of other problems. As part of the system, the certification reports produced by the governments of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire must then be verified to ensure that the data is accurate.
Originally, verification was to be conducted by an oversight group that was an independent, third party effort led by the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) and the National Consumers League called the Verification Working Group (VWG) and did not include industry representation. In typical certification programs it is common and recommended for verification, monitoring or auditing processes to be conducted by an independent, third party. This initiative was eventually defunded by the chocolate industry in 2006 in favor of a new entity, the International Cocoa Verification Board (ICVB), designed to include industry representation.
The ICVB includes representatives from NGOs and governments as well as companies themselves -- all of whom were selected by a secretariat called Verité that was contracted and paid for by the chocolate companies. From the beginning, the ICVB has given almost no authority to provide meaningful oversight as they are not able to compel companies or governments to address problems they identify. As a result, serious concerns remain regarding how the "certification" reports measure forced labor and trafficking. You can read more about those concerns in ILRF's new report as well as an excellent article by Anita Sheth titled "Such a Long Journey: Barriers to Eliminating Child Trafficking for Labor Purposes in the West African Cocoa Value Chain" (starting on page 53 of this PDF document).
Ultimately, the chocolate industry appears to be dispensing with even the limited amount of oversight created by the ICVB in favor of a new entity called the Joint Working Group (JWG) that will likely be even more favorable for the industry. The JWG includes representatives from companies and governments and two civil society organizations (one from Cote d'Ivoire and one from Ghana) who are selected by the governments. The initial NGO selected for one of the two "civil society" seats, UNICEF, suggests that no genuinely grassroots groups will be given a seat at this table.
Check out the new report for more information. Also, you can check out our previous report on the Harkin-Engel Protocol for more.
Before Valentine's Day, we'll have our latest update for consumers about which companies are bitter and which are sweet when it comes to labor rights -- and new ways to take action! So stay tuned!