Groups Claim Hershey Chocolate Is Not So Sweet For Child Laborers

The Hershey Co. has been given an “F” by several non-profit groups for allegedly failing to remove child labor from its chocolate production.

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A year ago, fair trade organizations Green America, Global Exchange and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) challenged Hershey, claiming the company used forced, child, and trafficked labor in its chocolate products. The groups published a report, “Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company.” The report was released around the same time as Hershey’s first Corporate Social Responsibility Report.

When Hershey released the CSR report, then-President and CEO David J. West stated, “Our belief in the importance of CSR dates to the founding of our company more than 100 years ago. Today, CSR is an integral part of our global business strategy. Our CSR efforts stretch from our headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to our operations in countries such as Mexico and India, to the cocoa farming villages of West Africa. While we are proud of our accomplishments, including the contributions we make to children in need, we understand that much remains to be done.”

According to the updated report from the three groups (two of which sell or promote fair trade products, including those containing cocoa), a lot needs to be done. The report critiques Hershey’s existing CSR initiatives and claims Hershey is falling further behind its competitors in removing child labor from its products. The report urges Hershey to commit to sourcing Fair Trade cocoa to stop these abuses.

Jeff Beckman, Hershey’s director of corporate communications, says that Hershey is working with its network of farmers to improve living and working conditions on the cocoa farms, a claim reinforced by Susan Smith, senior vice president, Strategic Communications, for the National Confectioners Association.

“Hershey without question has been a leader in addressing labor and farmer livelihood issues in West Africa,” says Smith. “Along with many partners in government, civil society and private industry Hershey has worked for more than 10 years to support programs that improve access to education, enhance productivity and incomes, eliminate hazardous labor and improve the overall health and wellbeing of cocoa communities.”

Beckman says the the Hershey Co. “care(s) deeply about these issues and work(s) hard to ensure that our cocoa is responsibly sourced. It’s important to us that all members of our global cocoa supply chain are fairly treated. Hershey’s support for cocoa communities goes back more than 50 years. We are actively engaged in programs that help develop more productive agriculture practices, build educational and community resources and eliminate exploitative labor practices.”

Sept. 19 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol – an agreement made by the country’s largest chocolate companies, including Hershey – to put an end to forced child labor in chocolate by 2005. The fair trade groups claim hundreds of thousands of children continue to work in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms in West Africa, and human trafficking continues.

“A full decade after Hershey committed to ending the exploitation of children in its chocolate, it is a sad reality that this iconic chocolate brand continues to lag behind its competitors in ensuring that its primary ingredient does not harm children,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

While some of Hershey’s closest competitors, including Mars and Nestlé, have committed to begin sourcing cocoa that is independently certified to comply with labor rights standards, Hershey, the largest and most iconic chocolate company in the U.S., still lags behind, the groups claim.

Consumers, businesses, and legislators are increasingly pushing for greater transparency and the reduction of labor abuses in supply chains. The Time to Raise the Bar report calls for Hershey to take significant action on child labor, including immediate steps to eliminate forced, trafficked and child labor from its supply chain and the adoption of Fair Trade Certification for its major products.

“It’s increasingly clear that consumers care where the products they buy are from and how they were made,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, Fair Trade Campaigns Director at Green America.

According to Beckman, Hershey’s focus is with on-the-ground programs that promote sustainable livelihoods in West Africa. The corporation is a founding member of the World Cocoa Foundation, the International Cocoa Initiative and ECHOES. ECHOES, helps young people in West African cocoa communities by teaching leadership or entrepreneurship in or out of school, functional literacy training and activities to raise awareness of child labor, HIV/AIDS and malaria. ECHOES also offers Family Support Scholarships that help mothers increase family income and support children's education.

Earlier this year, the company launched CocoaLink, a program funded entirely by Hershey that uses mobile phone technology to provide cocoa farmers with farming and social information that will help them improve their livelihoods and combat inappropriate labor conditions in cocoa villages. CocoaLink became the first corporate program endorsed by the Department of Labor as part of its $17 million Framework of Action to combat the worst forms of child labor in West Africa.

Hershey also is a partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in an initiative to improve the livelihoods of approximately 200,000 cocoa farmers in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Liberia. “These programs are helping farmers and their families,” said Beckman. “Farmer income has increased more than 25 percent in villages with successful training programs. We’ve found that increasing the income of cocoa families can help increase enrollment for children in rural schools.”

According to ILRF, an estimated 211 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are compelled to work around the world. These children produce rubber, cotton, coffee and work in mines to produce goods that are traded to the United States and other developed countries.

Advocates here in the United States have long lobbied the Department of Labor and Congress to provide the same protections granted to young workers in U.S. workplaces to the children and youths working on U.S. farms. While the Department of Labor states that in agriculture, as in any other industry, permissible jobs and hours of work vary by age, there is a parental exemption, which says, “Minors of any age may be employed by their parents at any time in any occupation on a farm owned or operated by his or her parent(s).”

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