Almost two decades ago, the world’s largest chocolate companies pledged to cleanse their global supply chains of cocoa harvested by young boys swinging machetes on West African farms. The voluntary self-regulation derailed legislation, then moving swiftly through Congress, that could have labeled Hershey or Snickers bars as the products of child labor.
But the latest U.S. data show that two million children still work on cocoa farms.
And now three of the biggest chocolate firms say they are open to European regulations to help protect child workers and lush West African rain forests from the ravages of cocoa farming.
M&M’s maker Mars Wrigley and Oreo-maker Mondelez International signed the December letter calling for regulations, along with cocoa-processor Barry Callebaut and watchdog cocoa groups. The regulations would legally require cocoa importers in the European Union — the world’s biggest cocoa market — to map cocoa supply chains and disclose human rights violations such as forced labor and child labor. Fixes to these violations would also be part of the reports, which are now voluntary.
Pennsylvania-based Hershey Co., controlled by the child-care charity Milton S. Hershey School, said it supports the “due diligence efforts” and “additional regulation proposed by the European coalition” but has not officially joined. A Hershey spokesman said Friday that the company “would support proposals in the United States that align with [European] proposals.”
But advocacy groups say that Hershey is still an unknown as to whether it would strongly support U.S. regulations in Washington.
U.S. and European chocolate companies source their cocoa from the same area in West Africa.
“The optimistic view is that child labor is at the same level it was 20 years ago,” said Antonie C. Fountain, the managing director of the Netherlands-based VOICE Network, an association of advocacy groups involved with sustainable cocoa farming.
Fountain said that the agreement with the three companies and groups that inspect cocoa farms for violations is “a big deal. Companies will generally try to deregulate instead of asking for regulations. The companies are beginning to realize that all these voluntary promises are not enough.”
Todd Larsen, a top official with the advocacy group Green America, said that deforestation in West Africa has accelerated in the last decade because of cocoa farming and that there has been no improvement with child labor.
A 2015 U.S. Labor Department report estimated that two million children still worked in dangerous jobs in cocoa-growing regions in West Africa. A new report could be released within a few months.
A 2019 investigation by the Washington Post found that Utz, a third-party group that inspects cocoa farms as part of the self-regulatory protocols, had a spotty record and that Utz-inspected Ivory Coast cocoa farms were more likely, not less, to employ child labor.
Thousands of Ivory Coast farms, also certified by Utz, were located in nationally protected forests, the Post reported.
“What they are doing is not enough,” Sarah Zoen, a senior policy adviser at the anti-poverty group Oxfam America, said of the chocolate industry. “With each new progress report, it’s dismal. Something more needs to happen and legislation can raise the bar for everyone.”
Experts agree that the poverty among cocoa farmers — mostly a result of low prices for their crop that leads to child or forced labor — is a root cause of the human rights and ecological problems.
The Ivory Coast and Ghana, which produce about 60% of the world’s cocoa, have banded together to create a cartel-like group to boost cocoa prices, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Observers have informally dubbed it “COPEC” because of its similarity to the OPEC consortium of oil-producing countries, and note that it would likely raise prices for consumers.
Larsen, of Green America, said that advocates believe that COPEC is a good idea. “You want the [cocoa] price to go up for all companies” and relieve the pressure for farmers to access free or child labor, he said.
Hershey and other big chocolate companies pledged in 2001 to regulate themselves to expunge child labor-connected cocoa from their candy bars after European and U.S. media reports, including an investigative series published in The Inquirer and other newspapers.
At the time, top Hershey officials said they were “shocked” by news of child labor on the cocoa farms. “No one, repeat, no one, had ever heard of this,” Robert Reese, a senior vice president at the company, told The Inquirer in 2001. “Your instinct is that Hershey should have known. But the fact is we didn’t know.”
But the industry’s voluntary regulation missed just about every deadline for cracking down on child labor.
Hershey spokesman Jeff Beckman said Friday that “the voluntary efforts of chocolate companies and cocoa importers who have led the way through farm-level sustainability programs, cocoa certification, and remediation programs account for about 40% of the cocoa used in the world. It has become clear that in order to effect widespread change across the entire sector, new policies and regulations that will hold all purchasers of cocoa accountable for their supply chains is needed.”
Beckman added that Hershey “has zero-tolerance for child labor, and we are working with suppliers and governments to eradicate it. This includes taking steps to prevent, identify, and remediate any instances of child labor found in our cocoa supply chain.”
The charitable 2,100-student Milton Hershey School, the nation’s richest private school that serves only impoverished children, the majority from Pennsylvania, controls 83.5% of the shareholder vote in the candy giant. Hershey dividends account for much of the school cash for classrooms and boarding.
Through the charity’s complex financial structure, the Hershey candy company benefits from low-cost cocoa farmed by children in West Africa. Hershey profits — partly boosted by low-cost cocoa — is then funneled to the U.S. school in stock dividends.
“I’ve talked to Hershey,” Zoen said of its child labor efforts in West Africa. “I think there are really great advocates in the company. They have the makings of progress but I have not seen the latest of what they are up to.” She added that with Hershey, “we are still holding our breath.”