Child Labor at Nestle

The employment of children in cocoa production is a nettlesome problem typical for many chocolate companies. Mondelez, Hershey, Cadbury, Nestle and other companies have all been accused at different times of using child labor in their cocoa farms. While the use of child labor, in isolation, is a big ethical concern, it is often amplified by the concomitant problems of kidnapping, trafficking and slavery. In other words, many children involved in cocoa production are involuntary laborers. Importantly, child labor is not limited to cocoa production. Nestles operations, too, are not limited to chocolate production. Yet, while Nestle has recently recognized that forced child labor is present in its seafood supply chains in Thailand, it is loath to assume responsibility for its use of child labor in the cocoa farms of Africa. This paper will explore Nestles use of child labor in its supply chains throughout the world, focusing in particular on forced child labor in cocoa production in Africa. It will also explain how the company is tackling the problem. The preliminary findings show that Nestle cannot completely prevent the involvement of involuntary child labor in its supply chains without impairing its own production. But to say that Nestle remains nonchalant about the problem would not be true. Rough estimates suggest that Nestle is, in fact, spending large sums of money to prevent involuntary child labor instead of trying to earn on it.

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It is curious that the problem of involuntary child labor draws so much attention in the western world. On the other hand, in Africa and other largely underdeveloped parts of the world where Nestle purchases its ingredients, child labor seems to be a regular matter. An estimated 2.1 million children in West Africa alone are harvesting cocoa. Many others are involved in other physically agricultural activities and in other industries, such as diamond mining. Overall, Hugh Hindman estimates that 30% of all children under 15 years in Sub-Saharan Africa are involved in child labor. The exact percentage of those who are involuntary laborers is not clear. OKeefe estimates that about 5.5 million children around the world are forces laborers. Of these, many are forced to toil in the unbearable working conditions of the cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast. Starting from the age of five years, children are forced to carry heavy loads and to work with hazardous chemicals on African cocoa farms. Still, African governments often approach the problem with insouciant disregard. Importantly, the different attitudes to child labor in developed countries and underdeveloped countries are explained by the differences in cultures. Trevino and Nelson explain: The treatment of employees (e.g. child labor, worker safety) may be more of a problem in one culture, whereas the disposal of toxic wastes may be more likely to arise in another. Thus, whereas the problem of involuntary child labor causes public outrage in the west, it goes largely unnoticed and as something that is acceptable in African nations.

Yet, not only African governments are insouciant about the problem of child labor. Western companies, too, often settle into a policy of benign neglect of child labor in the underdeveloped parts of the world. What is more, by continuing to purchase ingredients from these underdeveloped parts of the world, such western companies help to perpetuate the nefarious practice. Nestle, for example, facilitates child labor in the African cocoa production industry in that it buys cocoa beans at commodity exchanges where legitimate produce is mixed with beans collected by forced child labor. Importantly, the company does not have its own plantations or cocoa farm in Africa. Even so, as a company that buys products contaminated by nasty labor abuses, Nestle should at least bear ethical responsibility for the problem.

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It is not known exactly when Nestle started buying cocoa beans from companies that espouse involuntary child labor. The problem of forced child labor in Africas cocoa production industry did not gain international prominence until the late 1990s-early 2000s, when a BBC documentary and other similar media releases revealed the enormities of child labor in the industry. Ever since that time, Nestle the worlds largest food company and one of the chocolate behemoths has faced accusations of complicity in involuntary child labor. Clearly, because the practice of forced child labor is unethical, Nestle has an ethical responsibility for its alleged involvement in it. While the company does not expressly admit that forced child labor is present in its supply chain, it does not rule out such possibility.

Whether Nestle has a legal responsibility or a social responsibility to monitor the origins of cocoa beans is a more delicate question. Trevino & Nelson, for example, argue: Implementing a companys standards, such as a ban on child labor, can be quite complicated. In Ethiopia, for example, there are about two million smallholders, who deliver their cocoa beans to the market either through a middleman or a company. Controlling the compliance of these smallholders with International Labor Organization core labor standards would be an ordeal. In Ivory Coast, tens of thousands of individual cocoa growers unite into larger farm cooperatives to sell their harvest through a large government-licensed buyer. For Nestle to monitor the origins of all cocoa it buys in this country be as difficult as in Ethiopia. The organization, after all, cannot dispatch its observers to the farmstead of each individual cocoa grower. However, not all consumers of Nestles products believe in the companys innocence. Over the course of the last 15 years, the company has had to deny charges of its active involvement in the massive business of child labor in Africa. In one of the lawsuits against the company, plaintiffs from Mali accused Nestle of aiding and abetting dismal human rights violations through knowingly purchasing cocoa beans from Ivory Coast and through providing technical and financial assistance to nefarious farmers. The US Supreme Court dismissed this case in May 2016, but others are almost sure to come in the future. The problem was that the plaintiffs failed to adduce ironclad evidence proving Nestles active involvement in the in forced child labor in Ivory Coast.

While Nestles legal responsibility for forced child labor in its supply chains in Africa is dubious, its social responsibility for the same problem is accepted as an undeniable fact. This is not a responsibility it owes to African children alone. Indeed, having learnt of Nestles possible complicity in forced child labor in Africa, many American families refuse to buy the products of the company as a treat for their own children. The company takes its ethical and social responsibility for the problem of involuntary child labor in the African cocoa industry seriously. The question might need some greater consideration, as presented below.

Thus, it appears from the above discussion that Nestle does not own cocoa plantations in Africa. Hence, it is not responsible legally for the hiring of underage children for work in these African cocoa plantations. Likewise, it could be said that Nestle does not subject African children to forced labor or, at least, does not do it directly. Its only implication in the problem of involuntary child labor is that it buys cocoa beans from nations that practice involuntary child labor. In regard to this, Trevino and Nelson ask a series of apt rhetorical questions:

Should American companies invest in, or do business in, countries with corrupt public officials or companies that... violate the human rights of their citizens through slave or child labor or inhumane working conditions? Does doing business in these countries or with these organizations tarnish a companys ethical reputation by association? Is it all right to do business in the country as long as the company avoids engaging in the unethical practices itself?.

Given the unseemly brouhaha over the use of forced child labor in Nestles supply chains, the answer to all these questions seem to be a resounding no. Interpreted broadly, this would mean that Nestle has ethical and social responsibility issues concerning the application of involuntary child labor in the African cocoa plantations.

Importantly, either because Nestle realizes the damage of child labor to its international reputation or because it is afraid of potential legal repercussions or because it really cares about child labor, it has tried to minimize the risk of children working on cocoa plants in its supply chains. Although the company is not ready to sever ties with its risky African cocoa suppliers abruptly and completely, it has ostensibly sought to lessen its cooperation with such suppliers. Of course, the only way for Nestle to avoid all accusations would be to stop sourcing cocoa from those African nations where child labor is commonplace. This, however, would wreak havoc on the companys production and sales. Due to this reason, Nestle has preferred to try and confront forced child labor in Africa. In 2009, the company adopted the so-called Nestle Cocoa Plan in a holistic effort to deal with the root causes of child labor. The plan is based on three pillars: teaching cocoa growers to make their farms more profitable, eliminating factors that stimulate child labor, and increasing the long-term supply of sustainable cocoa. As to more specific measures, the company established a Child Labor Remediation and Monitoring System in 2012 to identify at-risk children and to raise awareness of child labor in Ivory Coast. Currently, the system covers 12,000 farmers, but it is poised to roll out to all farming cooperatives by the end of the year. Those children who are identified as being at risk receive remediation help, in this context from the program coordinators. In addition, Nestle has built 42 schools in Ivory Coast since 2012. The goal of building new schools is straightforward: to promote education among African children and, therefore, reduce the risk of these children being forced to work on cocoa plantations. Whether these actions are motivated by Nestles sincere desire to alleviate the problem of child labor in the African cocoa industry or by its willingness to lull the world into a false belief of its concern, Nestle seems to be doing more than the Ivorian government in tackling the problem.

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Even so, Nestle could burnish its image by adopting several recommendations. Trevino and Nelson exhort companies to carefully gauge ethical issues and risks before deciding to do business in a country or linking with a supplier or agent. While Nestle cannot afford to cut its links to an entire nation, it certainly can eschew cooperation with cocoa growers with tarnished reputation. Likewise, following the recommendation of Trevino and Nelson, Nestle should develop a suppliers code of conduct. This would help the company to oversee the compliance of its suppliers with international standards enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labor Organizations Fundamental Principles on Rights at Work, and Social Accountability Internationals major document Social Accountability 8000. Should Nestle adhere to these recommendations, it could avoid further accusations of complicity in child labor.

Overall, this paper has shown that the accusations leveled at Nestle for its alleged complicity in the massive business of forced child labor in Africa are groundless. In fact, the company itself does not exclude the possibility that forced child labor is present in its cocoa supply chains. Yet, as far as the company is concerned, it cannot monitor all activity in millions of individual cocoa farmsteads across Western Africa. Hence, legal lawsuits against the company have been without any merit thus far. Even so, Nestle recognizes its ethical and social responsibility that is, its indirect responsibility for the use of involuntary child labor in Africas cocoa production. Committed to remedying the situation, the company takes concerted efforts to combat child labor in Western Africa, including its 2009 Cocoa Plan, 2012 Child Labor Remediation and Monitoring System, building of schools, etc. Still, this paper has also shown that Nestle needs to take further measures to restore its sallied image.

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