That sweet chocolate might be the source of child labor somewhere

About 1.56 million children—many as young as five—are engaged in the back-breaking work of harvesting cocoa for that chocolate in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Those two West African countries together supply about 70% of the world’s cocoa beans, the raw ingredient for the bars and treats made by the likes of Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé.

A child harvesting a cocoa pod

That estimate appears in a major report out on Monday, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and written by the research institute NORC at the University of Chicago, at a cost of nearly $3.5 million. The 300-page document says the proportion of children in Ghana and Ivory Coast between the ages of five and 17 who work on cocoa farms has increased by a staggering 14 percentage points in the past decade, up from 31% to 45% of children living in the two countries. 

While the report does not fully explain the increase, it suggests that some of it might be due to the fact that cocoa production has risen about 60% over the past decade, drawing in ever-growing numbers of children as farmers race to harvest their beans.

What’s more, about 95% of those kids face one or more significant safety hazards on cocoa farms, including using sharp machetes to hack away at pods the size of footballs, or working on land sprayed with pesticides. The use of pesticides on the farms has surged 20% in five years, according to NORC, which surveyed thousands of cocoa holdings during last year’s harvest season. “A large proportion of children in cocoa agriculture carry heavy loads, undertake land clearing, and are exposed to agrochemical products,” the report says. “The injuries reported by children seem to be reflecting the consequences of these hazards related to cocoa agriculture.”

The report makes for troubling reading. Yet just as worrying—and infuriating to child-labor campaigners—is that companies and cocoa traders have failed to resolve an issue that they committed to tackling nearly 20 years ago. Under a 2001 protocol approved by Congress, eight of the industry’s biggest players agreed to eradicate 70% of the worst forms of child labor by 2020—a deadline it has missed. It also missed interim targets in 2005, 2010 and 2015.

Faced with rising consumer concern over child labor, chocolate giants like Cargill, based in Wayzata, Minn., and the Switzerland-based Nestlé have begun ramping up programs to build schools, monitor cocoa farms, and implement awareness programs among farmers. “Over the past five years there has been an increasing call for due diligence, and companies have begun to identify risks and do something about it,” says Nick Weatherill, executive director of the International Cocoa Initiative in Geneva, an independent organization funded in part by the chocolate industry. “They are starting to scale up now.” He calls the NORC report “a mixed bag of sobering reminders, lower estimates and some signs of progress.”

Cargill, for example, says on its website that “it is our duty to make sure that children who work on farms outside school hours are not financially exploited, physically endangered or discouraged from studying or playing;” it illustrates its statement about child labor with a photo of kids playing with a soccer ball. On Nestlé’s website, next to a photo of an African child writing in class, the company states that “access to quality education is an essential tool to promote children’s rights and fighting child labor,” and says the company has joined an industry effort to invest in 10,000 primary schools in the cocoa region by 2030. Both Nestlé and Cargill are prominent members of the World Cocoa Foundation.

Yet the industry’s critics point to one major problem: Under the Harkin-Engel Protocol crafted in 2000, it agreed to regulate itself. That has shielded companies from any legal action relating to child labor.

Indeed, the fragmented structure of the cocoa industry, as well as the remote, rural poverty in which the farmers operate, all make tackling child labor intensely difficult. Unlike in coffee or cobalt—two industries that have used children for decades—there are no sizable cocoa producers.

A tired underage cocoa worker resting beside cocoa pods

Instead, the vast majority of cocoa farms are tiny family enterprises of just a few acres. The farmers sell their beans to local cooperatives, or often to traders who pass by on motorbikes, buy their product and then resell them up the chain. Reaching tens of thousands of those farmers is not easy. “It goes all the way to the root causes: The poverty of farmers and the lack of alternatives,” Weatherill says. “There is a lot that companies can do to solve this, but they are not solely responsible.”

Fair Trade certification has proliferated in recent years, giving some consumers the impression that companies are now producing chocolate in an ethical way. In reality, organizations say, the Fair Trade label refers to the premium price paid to farmers or cooperatives—little of which makes a dent in farmers’ dire poverty. “Consumers think, ‘This is an empowered farmer,” Ryerson says. “It is completely off from reality.”

Article first published here