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Child labour-free cocoa 'almost impossible,' Nestlé head says

Amadou Kourago, 14, heads out to the field where he works in Noe, Ivory Coast, April 20, 2001. Up to 15,000 children from some of the world's poorest countries are thought to be laboring on plantations across Ivory Coast, producer of 40 percent of the world's cocoa and Africa's largest coffee exporter.

CHRISTINE NESBITT/Christine Nesbitt/Associated Press

Is there a "fine edge" between what's acceptable and what's not, when it comes to child labour?

According to the chairman of Nestlé SA, one of the world's largest buyers of cocoa, it's "nearly impossible" to end the practice, Dow Jones reports.

"You go into Switzerland, still today, in the months of September, [and] schools have one week holiday so students can help in the wine harvesting," chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "In those developing countries, this also happens."

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Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, whose company has come under fire in the past for purchasing cocoa from countries where child exploitation occurs, went on to say: "It's a very fine edge. You cannot say that no child can work in a rural environment. That is almost impossible. What we try to ensure is that they have access to schooling."

In recent years, reports of child labour on cocoa farms in West Africa, especially in the Ivory Coast, have sparked protests from rights activists and consumer groups, and have prompted chocolate producers like Nestlé to ramp up their offerings of "ethically sourced," certified chocolate. Chocolate giant Cadbury has also publicly expressed it was committed to eliminating child labour.

According to a report on the cocoa trade by the International Labour Organization (read the PDF here), an estimated 200,000 children, under the age of 18, were engaged in child labour in the Ivory Coast in 2002.

But Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe's latest comments seem to suggest that eradicating child labour is neither realistic, nor particularly helpful.

"If they have the access to good schooling, then the child labour as such, if it is helping the fathers in the field and helping with the harvesting, I don't think this is a problem," he said, according to Reuters. "The problem is when you use the children only for that and don't allow them to go to school."

If children have access to schooling, is child labour okay? Would you still buy that chocolate?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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