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Child Labor Notes

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While the nation only cares about the presidential election, the routine daily horrors of the world continue without abatement and it’s high time we remember that these things are happening and demand we do something about it.

First, George Clooney is the “brand ambassador” for Nespresso, the coffee company. Of course he has no idea what is going on in the supply chain for the company, so the fact that it uses children to work on its supplier farms in Guatemala comes as a shock to him. Let’s hope he does something about it. I can’t say I am confident, but pressure helps.

Second, children are routinely used as brickmakers in Cambodia. Something like that one is tough. It’s local production and it’s just really hard to enforce the laws, which do exist, against these kinds of horrors. The best way to handle this is to create legal regimes that make child labor financially unnecessary for families, which is things such as minimum wages and international labor standards, which would deincentivize such awfulness. Speaking of which….

Third, I am pretty skeptical of capitalists saying they are going to solve the child labor problems in their supply chain. I mean, if they really want to do it, they can do it by running their own operations, especially with something like chocolate, where you basically just need to buy the land. But hey, while I’m not going to take this guy at his word, it’s a conversation that does need to happen.

In the last year, Barry Callebaut has found 3,867 cases of child labor in its global supply chain. And of those, 2,333 — 60 percent — are in the process of being remediated.

Those aren’t the kind of statistics most chocolate companies are willing to lay out so bluntly. But there it is, right in the company’s Forever Chocolate Progress report for 2018-2019.

And they’re not worried about people seeing the number — in fact, quite the opposite according to Nicko Debenham, VP head of sustainability for Barry Callebaut.

“It’s not something that we’re trying to hide, it’s something that we’re trying to put on the table, and say, ‘We monitored our farmers, and we found these children working on the farms and we are going to remediate that situation,’” he explains.

But now that everyone knows how exactly widespread the problem of child labor is in cocoa, the real problem comes to light — how do you actually solve it?

The chocolate industry has been trying for decades to eliminate child labor, and so far, it hasn’t been successful. The goal posts have routinely moved — first 2010, then 2015, then 2020, and now 2025.

And today, it’s estimated that 2 million children are working on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana. So it’s not a small problem.

“Child labor still exists in the cocoa supply chain, despite all of the work that has been done by numerous partners throughout the industry consistently fighting its occurrence,” Debenham says. “That’s the hard truth. We admit we have to learn a lot about this complex and challenging problem.”

For a number of reasons, it’s not as simple as just telling farmers not to let their children work on the farm. And it’s not even as simple as paying the farmers more for the cocoa. Pricing is dictated by the cocoa futures market, which Barry Callebaut has no control over.

Callebaut is a big time player in the high-end chocolate world, for what it’s worth. Again, I remain skeptical, but the way progress is made is to keep the pressure on. And I will state yet again that there’s actually lots we as Americans can do about this. We can actually pay attention to the issue and make demands on our politicians. In fact, rather than pay attention to every poll and pointlessly watch politainment on television, we can actually pressure the people running, asking them questions and demand that the eradication of child labor, as well as other horrors of global capitalism, be dealt with. I’ve laid out a significant amount of the path forward here, here, and here. I realize very few people are interested in doing the groundwork to create the framework to solve these problems, but I’m going to keep plugging away at it anyway.

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