A team from U.S. Customs and Border Protection visited agricultural regions of Ivory Coast last week to begin investigating whether cocoa is produced there with forced or indentured child labor and, if so, whether the U.S. should block cocoa imports.
The investigation follows a July letter from two U.S. senators asking customs officials to issue an order blocking cocoa from Ivory Coast from entering the U.S. unless the shipments are demonstrated to be free of child labor. The West African nation is the world’s largest producer.
Barring Ivory Coast cocoa from reaching the United States could have drastic consequences for the world’s major chocolate companies – possibly forcing them to abandon their main supply. The measure also likely would extend to any chocolate made with Ivorian cocoa.
Customs officials anticipate taking another trip to Ivory Coast later this year.
“We urge you to take all necessary action to ensure that the U.S. is not complicit in indentured child labor in the cocoa sector,” the letter from Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said. “The last 20 years demonstrate that the travesty of forced child labor in the global supply chain cannot be solved by chocolate companies’ self-regulation.”
In calling for “aggressive action” against child labor in West African cocoa imports, the senators’ letter cited a June story in The Washington Post that detailed the use of child labor on the country’s cocoa farms and how the world’s largest chocolate companies failed to fulfill a promise to eradicate child labor from their supply chains by 2005.
As the United States has stepped up scrutiny of Ivorian cocoa supply, Ivory Coast’s government has also bolstered its efforts to address child labor and the unwanted publicity it causes for one of the country’s major exports.
In July, Ivory Coast signed an agreement with neighboring Burkina Faso that enables the Ivorians to send back children from Burkina Faso who travel unaccompanied to work on cocoa farms and who are vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses. Ivorian officials have since turned around two buses from Burkina Faso with about 100 children on board and three buses from Niger with more than 80 children on board, Ivory Coast government officials said.
“We made the agreement to reinforce the fight against child exploitation and cross-border trafficking,” Ramata Bakayoko-Ly, Ivorian minister of family, women and children, said through an interpreter. “We want to limit the number of children coming from Burkina Faso. It creates a mechanism for us to return them safely to their family.”
There is “no doubt that strengthening protection for this group of particularly vulnerable children should help in the fight against cross-border child trafficking,” said Nick Weatherill, director of the International Cocoa Initiative, an organization working to eliminate child labor. The group is funded mainly by the cocoa industry and also receives funds from donors including the U.S. government.
Weatherill added that the efforts to return children to their home countries should include measures to ensure their safety in the places they’ve left — places overwhelmed by poverty and violence.
The “compulsion to migrate is so often driven by conditions of hardship where they live,” he said.
The Ivorians also are seeking to raise the price companies pay for cocoa, a boost that would help the government and farmers address the region’s poverty, often cited as one of the key causes of child labor.
According to U.S. Labor Department research, a majority of the 2 million child laborers in the West African cocoa industry are living on their parents’ farms, doing the type of dangerous work – swinging machetes, carrying heavy loads, spraying pesticides – that international authorities consider the “worst forms of child labor.” A smaller number, those trafficked from nearby countries, find themselves in the most dire situations.
When asked this spring, representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands – Hershey, Mars and Nestlé – could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor.
“Forced labor is too ingrained in that country’s industry to attempt to single out specific cocoa farms or producers as bad actors,” the letter from Brown and Wyden said.
To block the Ivorian cocoa from reaching the U.S., customs officials must have evidence that “reasonably but not conclusively indicates” that cocoa entering the U.S. from Ivory Coast is produced with “forced or indentured” child labor.