Stinging criticism that Hershey has not done enough to address child and forced labour in its supply chain has come as a new framework of multi-partite action offers genuine hope of progress in tackling the issue. But, Ben Cooper writes, while chocolate companies are increasingly active in tackling the problem their reticence to speak publicly about the issue for fear of admitting culpability often hampers the communication of that positive message.

Child and forced labour is a feature of cocoa production in West Africa. This is not a new revelation. Politicians know it, NGOs and aid agencies certainly know it and the companies which buy the cocoa and bring it to market know it. Increasingly the public know about it too.

Thankfully, that awareness is leading to something being done to address the issue albeit at a frustratingly slow pace. The industry is involved in that and in that sense has a positive story to tell, not that you would know it from the way companies react when the issue hits the headlines.

The last week has been a prime case to point. Leading US chocolate maker Hershey was the subject of a stinging report published on last week (13 Sept) by four NGOs.

Timed to coincide with the publication of Hershey’s first-ever CSR report, the NGOs’ counter report accused it of a lack of transparency and exercising double standards by allowing unacceptable labour practices in its supply chain while proudly publicising its support of children’s charities in the US.

Hershey’s taciturn reaction served only to reinforce the appearance of corporate guilt even though it is an active participant in efforts to tackle the problem, and does in many ways have an excellent record on corporate philanthropy.

The publication of the two reports coincides with a significant moment in the concerted drive to eradicate child and forced labour in the West African cocoa supply chain leading on from the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol. A new Framework of Action has been unveiled, containing some significant steps forward, and new industry and US government funding has been announced.

Peter McAllister, executive director of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a multi-stakeholder collaboration set up following the launch of the Protocol, sees the new framework as a “very significant” development in the battle against child and forced labour. There is genuine hope that the new framework can take the efforts to a new “a new level of potential”, he says.

However, some are less sanguine. The US-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), one of the NGOs behind the Hershey report, has never endorsed the Harkin-Engel Protocol and takes a similarly sceptical view of the new framework.

ILRF campaigns director Tim Newman says commitments made by companies have not been met because of the lack of a reliable enforcement system. “That has been an underlying problem throughout the entire process,” he says.

Areas such as governance, monitoring progress and coordination are all included in the new framework, which could go some way to addressing campaigner concerns over the speed of progress. For McAllister, the critical difference under the new framework is the closer engagement being required of the governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Bringing the governments to the table, he says, “offers huge potential”.

While acknowledging that the stronger engagement with the two African governments does set the new agreement apart from what went before, Newman is concerned about the lack of a clear role for civil society under the framework. Civil society organisations are listed as key stakeholders but in terms of action and responsibilities the focus is on industry and governments.

“We’re just wondering what exactly is the role for civil society [under the new initiative], because civil society hasn’t really been an integral part of this plan from the beginning.  And there isn’t a clear role for civil society groups particularly those representing farmers and workers themselves in the West African region.” Newman adds that some of the greatest progress seen during recent years has come from companies and civil society groups acting outside the Protocol.

McAllister expects the details to become clearer following discussions during the coming months, but concedes that there remains “a lot of work” to be done to translate a “broad framework into practical agreements”.

As for Hershey, it too is involved in these initiatives. It was a signatory of the Harkin-Engel Protocol and a founder member of the ICI.

However, the NGOs contend that the company has done less than its competitors in making at least some of its supply chain more traceable. The Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance initiatives announced by Cadbury, Nestle and Mars over the past year or so have left Hershey lagging behind, say campaigners.

McAllister points out that Hershey’s supply profile puts the company in a different position from its competitors. “Hershey doesn’t have a footprint in the West African cocoa industry in the same way as Cadbury and Mars do. They source all their cocoa through intermediate processors.”

In fact, according to McAllister to criticise Hershey on these grounds betrays “a lack of understanding of how supply chains work. I think that’s an unfair criticism because none of these brands can tell you where their cocoa directly came from.”

Newman concedes that Hershey is in a different position but says it should be putting more pressure on its suppliers to implement change. “Hershey has a lot of power to influence Cargill and ADM’s buying practices and to increase the supply of sustainable cocoa globally if they demand that. I think that also Hershey has a lot of strategic power in the global market that they can leverage to support worker rights in cocoa but unfortunately they have not done so.”

McAllister suggests Hershey does have “very robust conversations with their direct suppliers”. The fact that it is left to McAllister to say this is one of the most frustrating aspects of the debate.

Despite being under a strategic attack from campaigners who know they will get more ‘bang for their buck’ by targeting Hershey rather than some of its suppliers who have no strong consumer profile, the company has declined to comment on the NGOs’ accusations.

Hershey would not comment when the NGOs’ report was first published and has subsequently provided a brief written response which failed to address specific questions posed by just-food.

This is not untypical. A BBC TV documentary earlier this year tackled the same issues and it was left to McAllister to articulate the mitigating circumstances that companies face as the companies themselves declined to appear.

While Hershey appears to be particularly uncooperative with the media, McAllister says all the companies are guilty of this to a degree. “The challenge they feel, which we don’t agree with, is talking about these things somehow admits culpability and they all struggle with that. Our opinion is that this is ridiculous. We know child labour exists in cocoa. The companies did not cause it, and they were largely unaware of it we believe up until 2000. But you have stated publicly that you want to be a part of the solution and so you should be proud of that.”

There is clearly much to be done to take the Harkin-Engel Protocol into this new phase and step up the fight against forced and child labour. Part of that challenge must be for companies to adopt a more open approach to discussing the issue and what they are doing to address it. Rather than living in constant fear of an adverse consumer reaction, they should trust their customers enough to speak candidly and give them credit for appreciating that these are complex problems with no easy solutions.