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Chocolate industry fights child labour

Some 15,000 children are thought to be working on cocoa plantations across Ivory Coast

(Keystone Archive)

Swiss companies have joined the global chocolate industry in putting the finishing touches to an agreement to stamp out child labour.

Switzerland, a major chocolate producer, has joined other nations investigating measures to address the use of children in West Africa's cocoa fields. The Swiss import nearly 50 per cent of their cocoa from two of the world's biggest cocoa producers, the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Chocosuisse, the association of Swiss chocolate manufacturers, says the industry has to become more socially responsible about who its suppliers are if the new protocol is to have an impact.

"One of the aims of the accord is to create a system that traces cocoa beans from the farm to the factory, and to see who is earning money from this trade," said Franz Schmid, the association's director. "That way you can exclude unwanted sources."

Monitoring labour practices is extremely difficult though, as many large farms are located in remote areas run by families or small businesses. "The chocolate production chain is very complex, and tracing the origins of cocoa is very difficult," Schmid told swissinfo.

Chocolate manufacturers themselves have been blamed for creating the market conditions that helped push African cocoa farmers into poverty, making them resort to child slave labour, according to Chocosuisse's director.

Education's role

"The slavery we see in these countries is the result of poverty. We should look for solutions so that every family can send their children to school a few hours per day."

One suggested approach to resolving poverty is guaranteeing minimal incomes for cocoa farmers. "If we want to eradicate poverty, we have to change the income situation," said Schmid.

It remains to be seen whether the chocolate industry itself is really prepared to tackle poverty in the developing world - for example by offering better prices for cocoa beans. "This memorandum shows that the industry is moving forward to deal with abusive labour practices," said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA).

The World Cocoa Foundation and the CMA proposed the memorandum last year, after pressure from the United States Congress. Politicians there had begun moves to introduce a chocolate labelling bill.

In the meantime, an industry-supported taskforce is investigating other measures to end child slavery on West African plantations.

It may face some resistance. The Ivory Coast government and cocoa operators have all along maintained that reports of slavery have been exaggerated and unrepresentative of most plantations.

There have been estimates that at least 15,000 Malian children help to produce cocoa in the Ivory Coast. These young slaves are taken from the poorest areas of their country, often sold by their parents for just a few dollars.

by Samantha Tonkin and Scott Capper


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