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A Dutch chocolate company’s fight to end illegal child labor

The chocolate industry has a dark side: almost 1.6 million children work -- illegally -- in the cocoa growing regions of Ghana and Ivory Coast. Tony’s Chocoloneley, a quirky but popular chocolate brand in The Netherlands, is on a mission to shake up the industry and eliminate illegal child labor completely. Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nearly two-thirds of the world's cocoa production comes from West Africa where an estimated 1.6 million children work illegally on farms across the region. But rooting out the illegal practice is difficult.

    Last month, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of food giants Nestle and Cargill, both companies were being sued over claims they knowingly bought cocoa beans from farms that used child slave labor. But one small company in The Netherlands is on a mission to shake up the industry and eliminate illegal child labor completely.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

  • Megan Thompson:

    There's something striking about the Amsterdam offices of Chocolate company Tony's Chocolonely. The tables and bikes outside. The floors, envelopes and shipping boxes inside.

  • Office worker:

    Big red balloons…

  • Megan Thompson:

    Virtually everything is fire engine red. It's partly the playful nature of the growing company where employees all have fanciful titles. Like "Impactus Prime," "Inspire to Actress," and the boss…

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    I hate to be called CEO. I just want to be the Chief Chocolate Officer.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But the color also serves a serious purpose.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    The color of alarm is red. And if you really want to point out that there is a problem and that something has to be done, you have to use the color red.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    These are the kids…

  • Megan Thompson:

    The problem: children working illegally in the supply chain of cocoa.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    And if you realize kids are actually producing the chocolate we love, then you know something needs to change.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tony's has a goal to make chocolate what they call "100% slave free." Not just their chocolate. All chocolate.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    Our goal is to eradicate all illegal labor from the value chain of cocoa.

  • Paul Schoenmakers:

    That is quite an ambitious mission for a small company like we are, but we are very serious about it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And it is a serious problem. According to a recent report, in the cocoa growing areas of Ghana and Ivory Coast, where most of the beans used to make the world's chocolate come from, almost half of the children work as child laborers. That's more than 1.5 million children. Most are doing what's termed "hazardous work," involving sharp tools, heavy loads or toxic pesticides. It's all part of the laborious process of separating beans from the large cocoa pods pulled from trees.

  • Nyagoy Nyong’o:

    If the child is working on a weekend, for example, helping the parents, that's not child labor. That's child work. But if they're missing school or if they're doing work that is detrimental to their health, that is child labor.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nyagoy Nyong'o is the Global CEO of Fairtrade International, which certifies ethical practices of products around the world. Cocoa is its flagship issue. Nyong'o says the price is basically controlled by a handful of large chocolate conglomerates who pay farmers very little. Families who can't afford to hire workers are using their children instead.

  • Nyagoy Nyong’o:

    It's about not earning a living income. It's about farmers struggling, but not getting the returns that they should get from the products that they grow.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The worst forms of child labor? When children are trafficked and forced to work without pay. That's what police in Ivory Coast were after, in this raid on a cocoa farm last year. According to one study, as many as 16,000 children in West Africa are being exploited this way.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Although child labor is not unique to cocoa, the fact that chocolate is a luxury product – a more than 100 billion dollar a year business, when most cocoa farmers live below the poverty line – is what struck Dutch journalist Teun van De Keuken as particularly outrageous. He was even filmed for a television program trying to get himself prosecuted, arguing that by eating chocolate, he was complicit in a crime. In 2005 he co-founded "Tony's Chocolonely," a combination of his first name and what he called the lonely battle to reform the chocolate industry. The messaging includes the uneven way the bars are divided.

  • Paul Shoenmakers:

    Sometimes you have a big piece like the big chocolate companies and sometimes you only get a very small piece like the cocoa farmers get so little of the value of chocolate.

  • Megan Thompson:

    While Tony's isn't the only chocolate company touting its ethical practices – it's arguably one of the most successful. What started off in a whimsical way, with just 5,000 chocolate bars, is now the most popular chocolate brand in the Netherlands with about 100 million dollars in revenue last year. And the company is expanding into markets around the world, including the United States.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Key to Tony's strategy is traceability. Cocoa beans in West Africa come from thousands of small farms and pass through many hands. Most big chocolate companies admit they don't know where all their beans come from. Tony's, on the other hand, has long-term relationships with specific cooperatives.

  • Lean Goedegeburre:

    My Tony's title is "Lean The Supply Chain Machine."

  • Megan Thompson:

    And it's even developed its own online software to track every bag of beans by lot number.

  • Lean Goedegebuure:

    We can trace back which farmers supplied the beans into that one lot number. It gives us visibility on traceability, basically.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And Tony's pays premiums to help farmers modernize and get out of poverty. In Ivory Coast for example, Tony's is now paying about 68 percent more than the minimum price set by the government. That contributes to making the chocolate more expensive.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    Well, in the U.S., this bar is a little under $5 and this bar would have cost it, let's say, $3.50. If we were paying the lowest possible price to farmers. But we don't pay the lowest possible price to farmers. We pay a dignified price.

  • Megan Thompson:

    This problem is not exactly new. The chocolate industry has been under fire for years. Back in 2001 after the U.S. Congress threatened legislation to address child labor in cocoa, eight of the biggest chocolate companies negotiated a voluntary agreement instead. Pledging to eradicate the worst forms of child labor in cocoa by 2005. But that deadline, and others in 2008, 2010, and 2020, came and went. Now they say they are committed to a new deadline…2025.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And if you look at the "big chocolate" company websites…like Mars, Nestle and Hershey… the issue is front and center. They talk about protecting children with big investments in local communities, working with families to get children back in school, and increasing child labor monitoring programs. But still the number of child laborers in West Africa has not changed much over the years. And as of today, still only about 25% of the cocoa supply chain is being monitored for child labor.

  • Alexander Ferguson:

    The aim is to increase those programs.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Alexander Ferguson is with the World Cocoa Foundation, a trade group that represents about 80% of the chocolate industry.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A lot of the big chocolate companies have programs to crack down on child labor. Are those programs going far enough?

  • Alexander Ferguson:

    I think the mistake made in the past is that, is that companies thought they could solve this alone. Many of our companies do have supply lines that are traceable, and look for child labor, and also pay premiums to farmers so that they get a higher income. I mean, this is something that is being done across the industry is is, you know, there needs to be more of it.

  • Nyagoy Nyong’o:

    So some companies could be doing very well. Some companies are not doing anything because all this is voluntary. And for years, about 20 years, we've had a lot of these voluntary initiatives that have really made little, little difference, I must say. I think when it becomes compulsory that companies have to be responsible for what happens in the supply chain. I think that's where we really make an impact.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tony's agrees laws are needed. Its most recent lobbying effort: a petition to the E.U. signed by more than 66,000 of its "choco fans" supporting a law that would hold all companies accountable for their supply chains.

  • Paul Schoenmakers:

    We have to look for problems in the supply chain in order to solve them. It's about pulling problems toward us rather than pushing them away.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And Tony's does find problems, cases of child labor among its farmer cooperatives. When it does, says Impact Navigator Pavithra Ram, local monitors track every one and work to get children out of danger or into school.

  • Pavithra Ram:

    Other chocolate companies also use some some sort of the child labor monitoring system. What makes us unique is that we implemented for one hundred percent of our supply chain. So you can't just go to some communities or a part of your supply chain and say, oh, we're monitoring there. We found cases. You need to do it for your entire supply chain because otherwise it's – you're not doing enough.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tony's efforts have won over at least one major ally, Barry Callebaut, the biggest chocolate manufacturer in the world.

  • Wim Debedts:

    I think Tony's is really a pioneer and also a leader and a front runner.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Barry Callebaut produces chocolate for brands around the world, turning beans into liquid, a key part of the chocolate making process. Tony's convinced the company to use separate tanks to segregate its beans to preserve the integrity of its supply chain. And that was a hard sell, at first.

  • Wim Debedts:

    It wasn't easy. A lot of investment had to be done. Cost of production would not be as efficient. But some of us believed in it. And we convinced the board to do the investments. And I'm very happy we did.

  • Promotional video:

    Tony's Chocolonely believes in sharing…

  • Megan Thompson:

    Now Tony's is working with Barry Callebaut to get other brands to adopt its core principles like giving farmers more support and pay. And offering to share its network of farmer cooperatives and "bean-tracker" software in a program it calls "Tony's Open Chain."

  • Joke Aerts:

    The goal is to really make it easy for chocolate brands to plug into a proven and working cocoa flow.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So far three competitors have joined including Aldi and the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, with its Delicata chocolate brand. But can Tony's really make a difference? Critics point out the company is still relatively small, working with only about 0.5 percent of the some 1.6 million cocoa farmers in West Africa. And one watchdog group has removed Tony's from its "slave-free chocolate" list because its production partner Barry Callebaut can't guarantee that all of the beans from its many other customers are 100% traceable.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    So we are growing…

  • Megan Thompson:

    But Tony's CCO Beltman is unapologetic. He says the partnership with the chocolate giant is part of a dual strategy: to lead by example and reform from within.

  • Henk Jan Beltman:

    If you want to make sure that you want to make impact at scale. You have to work with companies that are producing at scale. Sometimes we have a feeling that the task that we've taken on our shoulders is rather big. But with a little bit of naivety and arrogance, we can do a lot.

  • Wim Debedts:

    They really are becoming a big brand. And when you see how small companies are disruptive, that's really the name of the game. What started a bit as a joke with an important message is now a big company and potentially Tony's will will be bigger than Barry Callebaut five years from now. You never know what happens in this disruptive world.

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