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What is the challenge?

Child labor has been occurring for many years, especially in cocoa harvesting in the Ivory Coast, where according to a report commissioned by the US Department of Labor in 2015, over two million child workers were found in the Ivory Coast and Ghana (Revesz, 2016). Child labor is defined by the International Labour Organization as ‘work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.’ (International Labour Organization, 2019). Nestle is one of the world’s largest companies within the food and beverage industry and having been established in 1866, the empire of the brand has seen both successes and controversies within its time. Nestle diversifies in many areas and owns many brands, including those within the confectionary industry, where many of their products include the use of cocoa beans. Over the years companies, including Nestle, have outsourced their cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast in Africa (also known as the Ca´te d’Ivoire), an area extremely rich in this raw material. It has been found that four of the Western African countries, one of which includes the Ivory Coast, produce around 70% of the world’s production of cocoa beans (Shahbandeh, 2021), proving just how attractive it is for Nestle to source cocoa beans from.

It became increasingly obvious Nestle was purchasing cocoa from farmers who used child labor, having children working in unsafe environments, and handling dangerous equipment (Fair Labor Association, n.d.). As a result of the criticism Nestle received, in 2001, the company, alongside eight other multinationals, including the likes of Mars and The Hershey Company, signed the Harkin Engel Protocol, a voluntary agreement aiming to eradicate the worst forms of child labor within the West African cocoa industry (Clarke, 2015). Within this protocol, solutions were explained as to how companies could combat the ever-growing issue and set a deadline for 2005 to create a system for multinationals to adhere to (Slave Free Chocolate, n.d.). This deadline was never met and has since been extended to 2025 when child labor will aim to be reduced by 70% (Huff, 2021). In 2011, ten years after the Harkin Engel Protocol was initially signed, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) investigated Nestle’s supply chain and found incriminating evidence of the multinational firm still using child labor (Clarke, 2015).

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The governmental branch of the United Nations known as the International Labour Organization (ILO) governs 187 Member States, including the Ivory Coast. The ILO aims to encourage employees’ rights in the workplace (International Labour Organisation, 2019).

The body outlines guidance to which all member states will adhere, including following the Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29) and the Minimum Age Convention 1978 (No.138). This Convention sets out the minimum age of 13 to 15 for the employment of light work which will not affect the child’s education (International Labour Organization, 2017).

Furthermore, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) plays a key role in this issue as it is a collective group that monitors companies, including those within the cocoa industry. Reports are carried out which investigate a company’s supply chain, and suggestions are made by the FLA on how to combat any issues found (Fair Labor Association, n.d.).

Interestingly, Nestle asked the FLA to investigate their supply chain in 2011, becoming the first multinational food company to collaborate with the Association (Nestle, 2011).

The use of child labor in Nestle’s supply chain is a concern to many stakeholders, mainly children who directly face the repercussions. In 2016, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey found over 20% of children between five and seventeen were engaged in hazardous work on cocoa plantations (Bureau of International Labour Affairs, n.d.). Young children working on plantations on the Ivory Coast are deprived of education, are overworked, operate dangerous equipment, and sometimes suffer abuse by supervisors (Hawksley, 2012).

These conditions ultimately lead to both physical and mental trauma and a deprivation of childhood. An ongoing legal case (from 2005), regarding human trafficking and slavery on cocoa plantations to which Nestle has allegedly been linked, claimed children were forced to work a 14-hour day, and faced physical abuse as a result of attempted escape. Nestle has denied the company’s involvement with this plantation in question (Stohr, 2020). However, it is clear child labor remains a prominent and severe issue within the cocoa industry and subsequently, Nestle’s supply chain.

What is the Principle?

The issue at hand is children’s human rights, and therefore the focus must be on how a firm should protect and uphold human rights. This principle falls under non-consequential ethics, also known as deontological ethics, which is defined as ‘the moral worth of an action is determined not by its consequences, but instead by the nature of the action of practice.’ (Snelson-Powell, 2021). This addresses how it is not the consequences of an individual’s action, but rather the action alone which ultimately faces judgment.

Within the non-consequentialist approach, ethics of duties and rights can be found. Immanuel Kant, a pioneer of the ethics of duties believed morality is a question of certain eternal, abstract, and unchangeable principles: that humans should apply to all ethical problems:’ (Crane and Matten, 2007). Kant believed individuals should determine the ethical value of duty through personal judgment and created the Categorical Imperative framework to assist in this. This consists of three key principles (maxims); consistency, human dignity, and universality, all of which must be consistently fulfilled by individuals within society for an action to be considered ethical (Crane and Matten, 2007). If disregarded, these actions of the individual will come into conflict with others in the individual’s society and ultimately will be deemed immoral and unethical. (Crane and Matten, 2007). The second principle (human dignity) highlights the necessity to treat individuals with compassion, considering their wants and needs, rather than merely a means to an end (Crane and Matten, 2007). The final principle in Kant’s framework is ‘universality’ in which Kant addressed the need for the individual to consider how an action would be perceived by greater society i.e., whether or not it would be viewed as ethical and partaking in an action deemed as immoral is essentially condoning said act (Crane and Matten, 2007).

Philosopher John Locke described ethics of rights as ‘certain basic, important, inalienable entitlements that should be respected and protected in every single action.’ (Crane and Matten, 2007). ‘Natural rights’ have since developed into the overarching Human Rights Act of 1998, established by the United Nations, which includes a right to education and freedom from slavery or forced labor (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018).

Recognizing that the actions of corporations have an impact on human rights, the UN established the Three Pillars of Guiding Principles, recognizing the duty of the state and companies to protect, respect, and remedy individuals (Ruggie, 2009). This requires companies to acknowledge and share how they adhere to said principles (United Nations, 2011). The state must protect individuals by implementing effective regulations, and ensuring equality before the law whilst upholding an effective legal system. Companies then must follow these legislations (United Nations, 2011).

Furthermore, in every stage of a company’s supply chain, a duty to respect human rights must be of utmost importance, which requires monitoring the impacts of the company’s ethics on the lives involved in its supply chain. (United Nations, 2011). Finally, when a company is found to have breached a human right, remedies must be provided, and it is the state’s responsibility to have processes in place for this to be legitimately and easily achieved (United Nations, 2011).

What should Nestle have done?

Nestle has stated that ‘child labor has no place in our supply chain’ and therefore has put measurements in place to help combat and reduce this issue (Nestle, n.d.).

Under the rights of ethics, in particular, about the knowing and showing of the UN Guiding Principles, Nestle can be seen to have acted ethically, upholding the human rights of the children, as the company was the first in the industry to implement the Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS) in 2012 (Nestle, n.d.).

This falls under the ‘Respect’ Principle within the UN Guiding Principles, as Nestle understands it has a right of due diligence to uphold the human rights of all workers including the children. Nestle has direct or indirect communication with 700,000 farmers worldwide, allowing Nestle to be aware of the procedures the farmers use (Nestle, n.d.). Nestle has taken on the responsibility to educate themselves more on the matter satisfying the ‘knowing’ element of the Guiding Principles, as a company must first understand what is unethical to then remediate this. This highlights how Nestle identifies the importance of transparency within their supply chain, educating both themselves and the consumers by producing publicly accessible reports and the continuous process will help to reduce the use of child labor.

Furthermore, still under the ‘Respect’ Principle, according to the ‘Tackling Child Labor’ Report in 2019. visits to the plantations are made to conduct surveys to identify hazardous work children may be involved with, however this is exercised by the local people in the Ivory Coast, not workers from the Western World (Nestle, n.d.), This raises the question as to whether there may be conflicts of interest, therefore despite Nestle claiming to identify when there is an issue regarding child labour, there could be more insinuating Nestle could behave in a more ethical way to uphold the children’s human rights. This could be achieved by Nestle sending their representatives to conduct the surveys so there is no subjectivity, or to help gain complete control of the plantations, Nestle could have potentially vertically integrated with cocoa farms.

Continuing using ethics of rights, in particular the ‘Remedy’ Principle, Nestle may be viewed as behaving ethically as under the Cocoa Plan, they have supported over 40,000 children by providing access to education (Nestle, n.d.). As it was found Nestle used farmers who deprived children of their childhood, Nestle is showing they are trying to combat this issue by providing the required support. Despite this being a vast number of children who have been catered for, considering there were over 2 million children in child labor in 2015, only 40,000 receiving this support seems minimal. Therefore, Nestle should continue to help provide education, but increase their scale, possibly by increasing funding for this. A criticism of ethics of rights and using the UN Guiding Principles is how subjective they are and depending on the company, different outcomes will occur. It does not state how to apply each of the principles in practice, therefore this reduces consistency throughout all sectors and industries.

However, using the Kantian perspective it would state how Nestle is acting unethically in terms of human rights as the Categorical Imperative of human dignity is violated. Only actions of goodwill are ethical, therefore the action of employing farmers who potentially use child labor would be deemed as unethical as Nestle is not considering the needs and wants of the child. Nestle is the only party profiting from the situation and as a company worth over $300 billion can pay farmers higher pay, therefore helping to eliminate the need for child labor (Forbes, 2020). It is important to note if Nestle had goodwill behind putting measures in place, or whether they were reacting to what had been uncovered, rather than taking a proactive stance on it.

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