Friday, April 11, 2014

Child Labor, Chocolate and Makeup: Two Industries

For many people, “child trafficking” invokes terrible images of children locked in dark spaces, being transported, tortured, forced to have sex and left alone, confused and terrified.  Although these images are lived nightmares for many trafficking victims, another reality of child trafficking is forced labor.  Forced labor comes in many forms though the images described above can also be applied to the lives of child laborers.  In recent years, two industries known for using child laborers have received media attention due to well-known companies being involved in purchasing products from these producers: cocoa farmers in West Africa (Huffington Post, 2012; Forbes, 2014) and Indian mica producers (The Guardian, 2014).
The Hershey Company recently faced a lawsuit regarding their potential violation of federal child trafficking laws that prohibit the use of cocoa from known child laboring sites in Ghana and Ivory Coast.  What is still up for debate is whether or not the company knew that its suppliers used child labor (though cheap cocoa means cheap methods of production which raises questions about the ethics of a supplier’s production).
Cosmetic makeup companies like Lush and L’Oreal have taken steps to stop the use of mica, a common ingredient in makeup due to its glimmering property, from Indian producers who use child labor.  Cosmetic companies are trying to find ways to ensure that they won’t contribute to the problem.  For example, the British cosmetic company Lush has announced that they will no longer use mica in their products and L’Oreal’s mica supplier in India, Merck, has conducted social auditing of mica producers.
The Hershey and makeup cases illustrate two different approaches to the issue of child labor and its involvement in world trade.  The Hershey Company took an unfortunate risk which has had negative outcomes – Whole Foods Markets Inc. has discontinued selling the Hersey’s artisan chocolate brand Scharffen Berger in their stores and a public pension fund threatens to sue the company if it is proven that they were aware that their cocoa producers were using child labor.
               In the cosmetic industry, various methods have been used to avoid incorporating products from producers known to use child laborers.  Although not every method is 100% fail-proof (for example, social auditing can still miss cases of child labor that are covered up before the audit), at least the companies are doing something which is more than Hersey can say.
               In a competitive market, nothing can ruin your brand like involvement in social injustice.  While most people would argue that it’s wrong to support producers who use child labor, cheaper products – as a result of forced labor – are coveted in a world where economic growth is a life force.  From these two examples though, a simple lesson can be learned: avoid contributing to the issue of child labor in the first place or gamble your company’s reputation and revenue.

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Contributed by Annie Vulpas