Cocoa industry embraces Parliament resolution against child labour, but solutions are “no quick fix”

Workers load cocoa in Takoradi Harbour, Ghana. Source: European Commission Audiovisual Services

 

JENNIFER TSE

In a move welcomed by bodies in the cocoa and chocolate industry, the European Parliament both gave formal consent to the 2010 International Cocoa Agreement and passed an additional resolution targeting child labour in the cocoa sector last Wednesday.

Applauded by the Association of Chocolate, Biscuit, and Confectionery Industries (CAOBISCO), the European Cocoa Association, the World Cocoa Foundation, and the Federation of Cocoa Commerce, the resolution calls on stakeholders involved in cocoa production to take action against child labour by improving traceability in the cocoa supply chain.

“The agreement is important in itself in the sense that it enhances, reinforces, and improves the capacity of the International Cocoa Organization to bring more transparency and sustainability to the sector,” said Vital Moreira, Chair of the International Trade Committee for the European Parliament. “It’s a major achievement in my view, raising awareness about the child labour situation.”

Vital Moreira, Chair of the International Trade Committee for European Parliament

But both the industry and European Parliament are aware of the complexity of the issue and the need for a multifaceted approach.

“Only a holistic and coordinated framework that addresses the root causes of child labour and is implemented on a long-term basis by governments, industry, traders, producers, and civil society can deliver significant changes,” the resolution reads.

Diagnosing the problem

According to the resolution, about 7.5 million people produce 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa in West Africa, almost exclusively on smallholder farms. At the heart of the issue are poverty, infrastructure, access to education, and rural development—items that typically fall under the sovereignty of the state, said European Cocoa Association secretary-general Isabelle Adam.

“Cocoa farming is very traditional. In many instances, such as peak production times, the whole family pitches in,” said Adam. “Because of a lack of education and understanding for some dangerous practices, like the application of pesticides, children are sometimes unfortunately engaged in activities which are totally inappropriate.”

Defining child labour was a point of contention during the plenary debate on the International Cocoa Agreement. “What was attempted was to take away the strong criticism of any form of child labour by easing the wording,” said Helmut Scholz, German MEP and International Trade Committee member.

Due to the culture of family tradition in cocoa production, however, Moreira stresses that there is a difference between tolerable and unacceptable forms of child labour. “Worse forms imply trafficking or forced labour,” he said. “We should distinguish the situations which are not the same.”

Helmut Scholz, German MEP and member of the International Trade Committee

Traceability is a key goal in the resolution because the farms are scattered in hard-to-reach rural areas, making it difficult for companies to buy beans directly or assess farm practices and working conditions.

Current efforts

The European cocoa industry has been playing its part for years to address the problem of rural development, and the resolution’s recognition of this fact, said Adam, is a step forward.

“We have to work very closely with local communities, NGOs, and the governments of the countries that produce cocoa,” Adam said. “We work with the governments of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, and provide funding and support for a number of programs that address schooling needs, infrastructure, and community-building projects.”

The resolution states that the European Committee for Standardization recently set up a project committee to develop a two-part European standard for traceable and sustainable cocoa. It also calls on the European Commission to consider a legislative proposal on a way to effectively trace child-produced goods, and urges International Cocoa Agreement partners to support improvements to the supply chain.

“There are no quick-fix solutions,” said Adam. “It’s going to take quite a lot of time to see effective and sustainable change.”

Implications for producers and consumers

Education is key, according to Adam. Since cocoa farming is rooted in tradition, in some areas, it is still produced in exactly the same way as it was 100 years ago. Teaching farmers more efficient practices not only promotes a safer working environment, but allows them to increase their yield and income, she said.

It’s a win-win situation, she added, because it also increases quality and quantity of cocoa for chocolate companies.

Adam claimed that there is not necessarily a link between child labour and increased profits for companies because the choice of whether or not a child works is often taken in a family context.

“What could influence the price of cocoa to the consumer are some of the programs that look at certification and labeling schemes,” she said. “Some are talking about child labour-free labeling. We see from experience that it’s incredibly difficult to give a 100 per cent guarantee to the consumer—it would be misleading to think that that’s a possibility.”

Cross-sector knowledge exchange

Adam said that the rural challenges on the table go beyond cocoa or even a given country.

The child labour issue should be addressed from a multi-sectoral and regional perspective, said CAOBISCO in a written statement, going on to voice approval for the Parliament’s invitation to exchange best practices between different economic sectors.

“We are very aware that child labour is not limited to cocoa,” said Moreira, “but we have a special responsibility here because the EU is the world’s largest importer and user of cocoa.”

Whatever improvements achieved in the cocoa sector could have a positive influence on other sectors as well, he said. Child labour has also been a recurring topic in parliamentary debate, he added, with a discussion on child labour in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan being held just a few months prior.

The 2010 International Cocoa Agreement, which has been provisionally enforced until now, will replace its predecessor from 2001 and will be effective for the next 10 years.

Progress, according to Scholz, begins with communication. “We should discuss other methods of production and raise awareness among consumers,” said Scholz. “We should not have to link the pleasure of eating chocolate to the fate of children.”

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