VEVEY, Switzerland (AP) — The world's biggest food company, Nestle SA, announced Monday it will work with a nonprofit group to investigate child labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms that supply its factories, a new approach to a problem that has tarnished the industry for years.
Little has changed in the decade since the Swiss company and other major chocolate makers signed a U.S.-brokered international agreement in September 2001 to rid their supply chains of child laborers.
Now, Nestle says it is joining the Fair Labor Association, an international group that evolved out of a U.S. presidential task force in the Clinton White House, to probe cocoa fields that supply its products.
It's the first time a food company has joined FLA, which used the same approach with sweatshops when big-name apparel and shoe manufacturers wanted to overcome criticism over child labor in their operations.
Fair labor campaigners and academics expressed cautious hope that the new strategy might finally make a difference.
"If it's really an independent investigation of the supply chain, it would be a good thing," said Flurina Doppler of the Swiss-based Berne Declaration, one of the advocacy groups that have criticized chocolate makers for allowing child labor to continue since they signed the U.S. protocol.
Auret van Heerden, president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association, said the audit will be independent, with unannounced visits to a sampling of farms. He said Nestle's costs will amount to less than a half-million dollars and the results will be made public in spring 2012.
Ivory Coast produces 35 percent of the world's cocoa. Its coffee and cocoa sectors account for 15 percent of GDP. The nation's cocoa production hit a record 1.48 million tons last year despite a political crisis that almost brought civil war.
A report produced by Tulane University under contract to the U.S. Labor Department said last year that 1.8 million children aged 5 to 17 years work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana.
It said 40 percent of 820,000 children working in cocoa in Ivory Coast are not enrolled in school, and only about 5 percent of Ivorian children are paid for their work.
Zoua Bi Boti, president of Ivory Coast's national cocoa farmer's union, said many parents view child labor as a "form of initiation" into the family business but exploitation is prevalent on larger, corporate-run plantations.
UNICEF estimates 35,000 Ivorian children working on cocoa farms are victims of trafficking, but van Heerden thinks the numbers could be far higher due to the recent turmoil.
"One of the things I'm scared we're going to find is a lot of trafficked kids," he said.
Nestle's vice president for production, Jose Lopez, said the company wants a socially responsible supply chain, even if it means paying farmers more and helping to send their kids to school.
"There is child labor in the supply chain of cocoa that we buy our cocoa from, and we don't tolerate it. Now, saying it is not enough, and nothing will happen just by saying it," he said.
Laura Burke in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.