Child labour is still widespread on Ivory Coast cocoa farms supplying Nestlé SA, an investigation by a workers' rights group has found, prompting the world's biggest food group to pledge a redoubling of efforts to stamp out the practice.
The Fair Labour Association (FLA), a Washington-based civil society organization, said on Friday its investigation was the first time a multinational chocolate producer had allowed its procurement system to be completely traced and assessed.
"The investigation by FLA found that child labour persists despite industry efforts to discourage the employment of children," it said.
International rights groups have long said that children are working in conditions that often resemble slavery on cocoa plantations in the West African nation that supplies a third of the world's cocoa, although many Ivorians deny it is still a problem.
Nestlé, which makes chocolate brands including KitKat, Aero and Smarties, said it would act on all the FLA's recommendations, focusing on raising awareness of the problem on the ground and tackling the attitudes of people in the industry.
"The use of child labour in our cocoa supply chain goes against everything we stand for," said Jose Lopez, Nestlé executive vice-president for operations.
"As the FLA report makes clear, no company sourcing cocoa from Côte d'Ivoire can guarantee that it doesn't happen, but what we can say is that tackling child labour is a top priority for our company."
The FLA said it had found multiple serious violations of Nestlé's supplier code, often because there are no local laws to provide fair and safe working conditions.
The organization said health and safety problems are rampant, with most injuries due to use of machetes, adding that workers often exceed the 60 hours per week laid down in Nestlé's code.
It said eliminating child labour was a major challenge, given that Ivory Coast was still recovering from a civil war, which left infrastructure in rural areas devastated and few alternatives for Ivorian children.
The FLA called on Nestlé to do more to help farmers generate income from alternative activities and contribute to the development of vocational schools.
"This is a development problem. Child labour is not something you can audit away or inspect away," FLA president Auret van Heerden told a conference call on the report, adding that the issue was often not seen as a problem on the ground.
"You need to change the socioeconomic conditions of the farmers so than can afford to do things without child labour."
The FLA said Nestlé could have a profound impact as it buys around 10 per cent of the country's cocoa crop of 1.3 million tonnes, although action was also needed from farmers, co-operatives, the Ivory Coast government and other companies.
The Ivorian Agriculture Ministry declined to comment but a government source said: "We are trying to tackle this phenomenon – all those in the industry here know that is what we are doing."
Yet many farmers insist child labour is no longer an issue.
"This is nonsense that people are making up. There are no children in the plantations here – we understood the dangers of that a long time ago," said farmer and co-operative manager Attoungbre Kouame, who farms in Daloa, a main cocoa regions.
"They've got it completely wrong – at least in Daloa."
Nestlé said it would build upon its existing efforts to develop a more sustainable cocoa supply and work more closely with its suppliers to raise awareness of the child labour problem and train them on how to address it.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan