What has big chocolate been doing about child labour in the cocoa industry?

Michael Niemann, March 2010

On September 19, 2001, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association signed a voluntary protocol that came to be known as the Harkin-Engel protocol after the two U.S. Politicians who witnessed the signatures. Senator Harkin (Iowa) and Representative Engel (New York) had initiated an investigation into labor conditions in the West African cocoa sector after reports of child labor and even child slavery had surfaced in the late 1990s and 2000.

In brief, the protocol consisted of six action items, four of which were primarily concerned with public statements. The fifth involved the creation of an industry funded foundation to “oversee and sustain efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.”

The most important item, however, was the sixth item, an industry pledge that, by 2005, it “will 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”.

Sadly, the industry has fallen short of even this modest standard. From the very beginning of the process, the industry had made every effort to prevent the creation of a standard that would truly certify the absence of the worst forms of child labor.

The industry chose to ignore the pilot projects that international organizations and NGOs had developed in their fight against child labor. The International Labor Organization’s Programme to Combat Hazardous and Exploitative Child Labour in Cocoa/Commercial Agriculture in West Africa (WACAP) is one such example. After initially supporting the project, the industry withdrew in 2005, despite the fact that the deadline for creating the standard loomed. Rather than pay for a locally based system that incorporated existing social structures, the industry decided to favor a statistical sampling method that was cheaper and left local communities out of the loop.

As the 2005 deadline approached, the industry convinced the politicians to extend the deadline to 2008. In the meantime, the industry scrapped the certification committee it had initially relied on and chose, instead, a new model developed by Verité, a Massachusetts based NGO active in the industry certification field.

With a short period of time and just barely by the 2008 deadline managed its most important sleight of hand. It managed to redefine the term certification. While the original protocol spoke of certifying that the cocoa was produced without child labor, the new definition only certified that the data describing the extend of child labor gathered by Ghana and the Côte d'Ivoire were, in fact, accurate and properly collected data.

Unfortunately, this sleight of hand was accepted by Sen. Harkin and Rep. Engel in joint statement. The statement even acknowledged that the certification process developed by the industry was not the same as product certification but failed to recall that product certification was exactly what the protocol had promised.

An independent report by the Payson Institute of Tulane University, contracted by the U.S Department of Labor, revealed in 2009 the outcome of almost a decade of non-action – the percentage of children engaged in hazardous labor continued at high levels, and, more importantly, only 5 percent of the children and caregivers surveyed reported having had any contact with any of the intervention programs touted by the industry. The report concluded that "the resources devoted to the remediation step...need to be increased considerably to adequately address the problem" (p. 14).

Throughout the entire process, the industry’s primary goal has been to deny any responsibility for the prevalence of child labor in West Africa’s cocoa sector. And without any responsibility there is no obligation. No wonder then that what little has been done is couched in terms of development aid – telling African farmers how to grow cocoa properly. And that way, child labor is the farmers’ fault.

Michael Niemann is a writer and a teacher, currently writing a book on the global cocoa and chocolate commodity chain.