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April 24, 2008

Abolishing Child Labor on West African Cocoa Farms
    by Bill Baue

Mil Niepold of Verité on the International Cocoa Verification Board and Bama Athreya of the International Labor Rights Forum on the Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing. -- Seven years after media exposés revealed child labor in the West African cocoa supply chain and almost as many years of little action under the voluntary Harkin-Engel Protocol, the global chocolate industry is finally making strides toward addressing child labor. Verité, a nonprofit specializing in supply chain auditing, drafted a Road Map for the creation of the International Cocoa Verification Board (ICVB). Meanwhile, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is one of more than 60 advocacy organizations and Fair Trade chocolate companies that have endorsed an alternative solution, the Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing.

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Prospectus Ordering CenterBill Baue recently spoke with Mil Niepold, senior policy advisor at Verité, and Bama Athreya, executive director of ILRF, about their diverse views on the best ways to abolish child labor on West African cocoa farms.

Bill Baue: Mil Niepold, please sketch out the child labor problems in the West African cocoa supply chain that the International Cocoa Verification Board is addressing.

Mil Niepold: We’re looking at the worst forms of child labor, which are egregious and illegal: child trafficking, illegal application of pesticides, and children who are not in school whatsoever. Forced adult labor is also one of the issues outlined in the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

BB: What is the Harkin-Engel Protocol, and how did it set things in motion?

MN: It’s a voluntary document named after Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Elliot Engel that the global cocoa industry and the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana agreed to implement in July 2001. It set an initial deadline for addressing the worst forms of child labor by July 2005, but industry was slow off the mark, and that deadline was subsequently extended until July of this year. This Protocol is designed to create a system to assess the levels of the worst forms of child labor and then ensure there are mechanisms in place to survey those conditions and then remediate conditions over the long term. The first milestone is to ensure that the region that produces 50 percent of the cocoa in both Ghana and Ivory Coast is surveyed, and we are on track to do that by July of this year.

BB: What’s the structure of the board?

MN: It’s a multi-stakeholder initiative that's quite rare in its conception. Verite structured the board with nine seats: five NGOs, including a trade union representative as well as academics; two government representatives--one each from Ghana and the Ivory Coast; and two industry representatives--one from the US and one from Europe. And their job is not to actually provide the independent verification of the surveying of cocoa farms; their job is to select the most transparent, effective, and high-quality verifiers possible. The board has just recently issued a request for proposals, from which the board will select verifiers.

BB: Now Verité itself does the kind of monitoring and verification that is being called for, but I assume that you would not be eligible for filling out that RFP.

MN: Yes, exactly. Actually, Verité doesn't have the depth of experience in cocoa required--we have experience in over 70 countries around the world, but not on-the-ground presence in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Some people have said, why doesn't Verité just do the verification? That would represent business-as-usual: industry comes to a group, such as Verité, and says, hey, can you do this for us?

This problem is so vast and these initiatives are so wide in scale--they're nationwide--when a scale-up occurs over the next coming months and years, the idea is to have these surveys scale up to 100 percent of both Ghana and Ivory Coast, which combined represent about 72 percent of global cocoa production.

BB: The independence of board constituents has been called into question. Some of the NGOs have former financial ties to industry. What is your response to that critique?

MN: In the eyes of Transparency International or other watchdogs on corruption, for anybody on the board to be conflicted, they would have to rely predominantly on income derived from cocoa or cocoa relationships. Care International, which has a member on our board, does one or two projects in the cocoa sector, but these represent less than one percent of Care's overall business. So I think it's hardly accurate to say that's a conflict of interests. Rather, it gives this board member particular expertise and insight.

BB: Stepping back to look at the work the board does, it's been pointed out that it's several layers removed. It's the verification of certification of monitoring. Can you explain the layered structure?

MN: It's accurate to say there’s more than one layer, but no more than two. There may be some conflation, as certification is really the same as monitoring, and verification is attesting to that monitoring. This second layer of verification is a critical piece that says, we see the data, but how did you arrive at those numbers? Are those numbers accurate? And is the scale of the problem worse than what you've originally said, or were these monitoring surveys reliable?

The firm belief of this process, enshrined in the Cocoa Verification Board, is that good data matters. We feel very strongly that, if you're looking at a nationwide effort to address something so serious as trafficking, pesticide application, lack of schooling, etc..., you're going to need to start with robust data so you can then strategically and effectively plan your remediation strategies.

BB: It sounds like verification is a form of auditing, or a seal that the certification was done properly.

MN: That’s accurate. And now we're seeking feedback from a very wide array of stakeholders on what the verifiers should be looking at, what challenges they'll face, and what opportunities they'll have. One of the most important things will be guidance to verifiers that they must use child-sensitized interview techniques, because if they don't use the appropriate interview techniques to get at the complexity of child work, child labor, and child trafficking, then we're going to miss the mark. And part of the board's role right now is to really critically evaluate the verification proposals that we've gotten and to say, will these achieve that end, and we are quite confident that at the end of this process, we will in fact have quite independent, credible, and robust verifiers in place, and that the moment that everyone's been waiting for for seven years is now upon us!

Bill Baue: Bama Athreya, the International Labor Rights Forum has been following cocoa-child labor issue for almost a decade. Please sketch out the problems with sourcing cocoa from West Africa and the history of engagement and action on those problems.

Bama Athreya: The media exposés in 2001 revealed a widespread and systematic child labor and trafficking problem that affected just about every chocolate company. All the companies that we know and love were on the hook--Nestle, M&M Mars, Hershey, Cadbury, even the high-end brands like Godiva and Ghirardelli--no one was without blame in this problem. Congressman Elliot Engel from New York proposed a bill that would force companies to label their chocolate as child labor-free.

That legislation never went anywhere. The chocolate industry as a whole banded together with lightning speed to say, “Wait, wait, don’t legislate. We’ll take care of the problem ourselves, voluntarily.” And they signed onto the Harkin-Engel Protocol. But there was no meat to it. There was no specific action that the industry committed to take--except there's one line in that Protocol that we found very interesting at the time, where the industry voluntarily states that they will monitor and certify their entire cocoa supply worldwide as child labor-free by July 2005.

But every single trip we took to Ivory Coast, we found no evidence on the ground, I mean none whatsoever, of a single step taken by the chocolate companies to implement that promise. Not to be unduly cynical, because I believe that corporations can do the right thing, but in this case, quite a lot of energy and money was spent on public relations between 2001 and 2005, and sadly, not a single program or initiative or attempt at supply chain tracking was undertaken on the ground in Ivory Coast.

BB: Other sectors have made voluntary commitments and have put in place pretty robust certification and monitoring and verification tools. Why has the cocoa industry been unable to match that best practice?

BA: I find it fascinating and I don't have a good answer for that given the tremendous resources the chocolate industry has at its disposal. Profits from chocolate sales in the US last year were $16 billion. Starting in mid-2007, there have been a number of very interesting initiatives that individual companies in this industry have taken on to pilot work by credible certification groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified and a much greater availability, particularly in Ivory Coast, of Fair Trade certified cocoa as well.

BB: ILRF, with a group of other advocacy organizations, have proposed a set of standards, the Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing that you consider would bring best practice to the industry. What do those standards entail and how are they the appropriate ways to address problems on the ground?

BA: We've been working on this issue for several years now, and it's been very frustrating that, we saw what could have been a very significant promise to worldwide monitoring and certification back in 2001. The first step obviously toward solving a problem is identifying it, so the first thing we would have expected to see would be exporting corporations doing serious tracing within their own supply chain so they could identify what farms their cocoa production was coming from. And we didn't see that happening.

Over several years in this public debate, we would repeatedly ask, if a cocoa farmer could demonstrate that they were adhering to good human rights practices, would industry commit to buy that cocoa, and we were routinely answered, no, even if we know these farms are clean, we can't commit to buy the cocoa from the clean farms, so we thought, if you're serious about improving your supply chain, why would you not do these fundamental things? So finally, we thought it made sense, since we'd been working with some very good companies in the Fair Trade segment of the market that were willing to take all these principles on board, to articulate those principles directly in the public.

This had become a very confusing debate up through last year, and we just wanted to bring it down to brass tacks and say, here's what we're talking about--it's a handful of very simple points about accountability to the farms and to the workers, and fairness--paying a fair price for the cocoa--and taking responsibility for the rehabilitation of children who are found as forced laborers in this industry. We're not talking about developing another very detailed set of standards and monitoring criteria. We really mean that it's an articulation of basic principles, trying to cut through all the confusion in the debate and come back to the few things that we think stakeholders and consumers really want.

You can listen to the complete interview by Corporate Watchdog Radio host Bill Baue with Mil Niepold and Bama Athreya at the CWR website.

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