Nestlé has vowed to keep tabs on and ensure that child labor is reduced in its Ivory Coast coca supply chain following a Fair Labor Association report that found children are working in hazardous conditions on farms that supply the world’s biggest cocoa producer with beans.
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An independent investigation from the FLA, of which Nestlé became a member in March, found that child labor persists despite industry efforts to discourage it, thus putting Nestlé in “numerous violations of its labor code.”
West Africa is responsible for 70% of the world's cocoa and many of the biggest chocolate producers -- including Nestlé, Hershey (HSY), Russell Stover and Cargill -- have been outed for using suppliers who employ children on farms.
The FLA, which is the rights group that also explored Apple (AAPL) supplier Foxconn operations in China earlier this year, commissioned a team of 20 local and international experts from government institutions and civil society organizations to travel to the Ivory Coast in January and assess Nestlé’s supply chain.
They visited 78 farms, conducted interviews of 466 men, women and children, and met with Nestle suppliers representing nearly 80% of the volume of beans or cocoa products purchased last year by Nestle from the Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa situated between Ghana and Liberia.
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The group found gaps in Nestlé’s internal management systems, leading to holes in its monitoring of forced labor. FLA also said people in Nestlé’s supply chain aren’t aware of, or trained to, apply the labor code.
“The use of child labor in our cocoa supply chain goes against everything we stand for,” said José Lopez, Nestlé’s executive vice president of operations. “As the FLA report makes clear, no company sourcing cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire can guarantee that it doesn’t happen, but what we can say is that tackling child labor is a top priority for our company.”
There are often no local laws in place to prevent fair and safe working conditions, and FLA said about 72% of reported injuries in the country are related to workers’ use of machetes. The group also found that children are working far beyond the 60-hours per week maximum laid out in Nestlé’s labor code, especially during the harvest.
“For too long child labor in cocoa production has been everybody’s problem and therefore nobody’s responsibility,” FLA President Auret van Heerden said in a statement.
Of course, the problem isn’t solely the fault of people not studying code laws. The group also found that a big part of the reason behind child labor is cultural norms or challenges in the country.
The Ivory Coast is still recovering from a recent civil war that devastated the infrastructure of rural areas, and often compensation for sharecroppers is so low it rarely provides for their basic needs, FLA said.
In many cases, cultural norms have kept children working on farms despite having alternatives to farm work and attending school. For those that do attend school, they’ll often flock back to the farms to work during breaks, the FLA said.
Nestlé has agreed to monitor child labor and the related health and safety risks during the entire crop cycle, not just the harvest, and has developed an “action plan” with three phases that it expects to roll out by the end of this year and run through 2016. It is also looking to invest in “alternatives” for farm workers and families.
Nestlé said it will distribute a guide to 20,000 local farmers and suppliers and plans to conduct training on its labor code. The Swiss-based chocolate producer says it has already trained 6,000 cocoa farmer in the Ivory Coast as part of the plan.
“This mapping effort should result in a decrease in code violations in the next harvest,” van Heerden said. “Now that we know where the risks are highest, Nestlé can begin to hold participants accountable.”
The FLA has also investigated Nestlé’s and a number of other multinationals’ employment of children in Turkey’s hazelnut sector. The FLA’s findings last summer in Turkey led Nestlé to put efforts in place to try to reduce forced labor in the North African country.
The rights group said Nestlé has been one of the only major chocolate producers to make noticeable changes to address child labor on cocoa and hazelnut farms.