Senator urges cocoa trade to act on child labor


By Jeff Coelho

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Tom Harkin says the cocoa industry must deliver on its promise to wipe out forced child labor on farms in West Africa or face legislative action.

"I hope the industry will do what they said they were going to do. If not, then I'm going to be looking at legislation," Harkin told Reuters. "It could be anything from 'B' to 'T' -- from boycotts to tariffs."

Harkin, who spoke in a telephone interview late on Wednesday, was a key force behind the development of an industry-wide protocol in 2001 that aimed to eliminate forced child labor on cocoa farms, particularly in West Africa, the top growing region.

The multibillion-dollar chocolate industry has agreed to present lawmakers with a plan to implement a monitoring and certification system by July 1. The industry has repeatedly said that it is on target to meet that deadline.

Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, said he planned to meet with representatives of the chocolate industry on June 21.

"I would like to hear from them what they promised. That is, a timeline with detailed descriptions of how they are going to put in place a monitoring system, how they are going to put in place a system for social rehabilitation for these children, and a certification (scheme)," he said.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol, named after Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, also a Democrat, was developed in response to reports of child and slave labor conditions in West Africa's cocoa industry.

A 2002 survey by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture showed an estimated 284,000 children worked in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Guinea and Nigeria.

Hundreds of thousands of small family farms under 12 acres in West Africa provide more than 70 percent of the world's cocoa crop. Ivory Coast is the No. 1 cocoa producer.

U.S. and European chocolate industry associations signed the voluntary protocol, together with U.S. and Ivory Coast governments, international labor unions and several nongovernmental organizations.

The protocol's main objective is that "cocoa beans and their derivative products should be grown and processed in a manner that complies with International Labor Organization Convention 182," which calls for the prohibition and immediate action to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

Still, many African farmers consider child labor normal. Harkin said that was the reason for having a transparent certification process with monitoring.

"I'm not trying to say that kids can't absolutely do this work with their families. I understand agriculture. I'm talking about the worst forms. I'm talking about kids that are trafficked, bought, sold, enslaved, beat, kept from their families and not paid," he said.

Harkin has not ruled out seeking a labeling scheme for chocolate products sold in the United States -- similar to rugmarks, a seal or label attached to a carpet that has been confirmed as free of child labor.

"If the cocoa industry were told that their cocoa plants had some kind of disease, how many do you think they would check? They would get in there and check to make sure that they wiped out that disease," Harkin said.

"Well, we've got a disease here. And it's a rampant disease and they (industry) can fix it. And to the extent that they want to fix it and will take these specific steps, we will be behind them and will be supportive, and so would the rest of the world community," he added.