The unpalatable cause of poverty

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As arguments rage over cuts in Britain’s international aid budget, Liberal Democrats could help expose some of the mechanisms which create and sustain poverty.  On Tuesday December 1st, that brand household name Nestle is going the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that it should be allowed to use slavery to farm and ship raw cocoa from west Africa in order to make our chocolate.

Let me repeat that.  Nestle, whose profits last year were $15 billion, insists it has a right to make money from slavery.  In technical terms, it wants to be granted corporate legal immunity.

I first reported on this dreadful practice of child slavery on west African cocoa farms in 2000 for the BBC. The confectionary industry executives with their plush offices and multi-million pound executive bonuses rounded on me, with accusations that I was inventing and fabricating. I wasn’t. The BBC supported the story. I went back to the Ivory Coast, Mali and Ghana time and time again.

Despite promises from confectionary companies and the British government, the culture of slavery and poverty did not only continue, it got worse. A recent U.S. Dept of Labor report found more than two million children were now working on the west African cocoa farms from which Nestle gets its supplies. Many of the children are trafficked, held against their will with no schooling or health care. They are victims of long-standing arrangements between governments and corporations to retain cheap or free labour in favour of high profits.

This culture is rife throughout the developing world where we give aid, particularly in India which uses bonded or slave labour in the cotton, tea, brick and other industries that feed our global supply chains.

However many schools are built in the bush, children are vaccinated or wells dug with British tax payers’ money,  international aid is mostly a plaster across a wound that can never heal.  Poverty will only end when the system that will be argued next week in the U.S. Supreme Court is tackled head on and decisively.


* Humphrey Hawksley is a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham Local Party and on the Executive of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

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  • Sue Sutherland 27th Nov '20 - 12:36pm

    This is truly shocking. Nestle want to be legally allowed to ignore human rights legislation and use child slaves to produce chocolate. I thought this was an argument that had been lost in the nineteenth century.
    Black Lives obviously don’t matter to Nestle if they are vulnerable children even though they say they support the movement.
    Please can the party take this up as a campaign. I am unable to get this going myself due to illness but if you follow the link there are various ideas about how to complain.
    I would have hoped this was something our PM would take up with Joe Biden.

  • Steve Trevethan 27th Nov '20 - 1:38pm

    Thank you for an important article!
    Slavery, and its derivatives, such as employment which results in poverty, are, alas, very much with us.
    Might our party work and show enterprise in making this well known?

  • @ Humphrey Hawksley Thank you for posting this, Humphrey. I hope you are able to bring this information to the attention of the Party’s Foreign affairs spokesperson in the Common s, Layla Moran, and Baroness Northover in the Lords.

    When I think about the Nestle take over of Rowntrees in 1988, I am sure the late members of that great radical Quaker Liberal family of Rowntree will be turning in their graves.

    Seebohm Rowntree – › wiki › Seebohm_Rowntree
    Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, CH (7 July 1871 – 7 October 1954) was an English sociological researcher, social reformer and industrialist.

    If my friend Katharine Pinder notices this comment, she may find it useful to consider Seebohm’s work…… and Asa Briggs’ comments on it… in her preparation of a Beveridge Mark 11.

  • This is a very misleading article and tells only half the story. All major buyers of coco purchase from West Africa, its selecting the low hanging fruit to single out Nestle, who have actually done more than most to end the practice of child labour.
    The other half of the story would be to highlight all the international efforts that have been made to end the practice of child labour globally, often with little or reluctant cooperation from the governments in the countries where the practice is most prevalent. In 2020 the International Coco Association was set up to address the issues of child labour in the coco supply chain, supported by international development agencies and coco businesses .
    What sensationalist journalism does is often necessarily to bring about positive change, but this article doesn’t accurately describe the full picture.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 27th Nov '20 - 10:36pm

    I am not convinced my post is misleading. It’s a fact that Nestle is going to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for legal immunity against using forced and child labour in its cocoa supply chain. It’s a fact that, in 2001, Nestle and other confectionary companies signed the Harkin-Engel protocol promising to eradicate these worst forms of child labour by 2005. The didn’t, and they missed numerous further deadlines. Its a fact that a U.S. Labour Department study published in October this year found that some two million children were involved in hazardous work and that their numbers had increased over the past twenty years. It’s a fact that in 2011, the United Nations published clear guidelines underlining corporate responsibility in global supply chains. In a year in which statues are being pulled down because of historic slavery it is astounding that a brand name multinational is going to court to put in place measures that give them legal immunity against modern-day slavery.

  • David Garlick 28th Nov '20 - 9:21am

    A case where ‘doing more than most’ ,if true, is woefully short of the only acceptable course of action which is to bring the practice to a complete stop.
    Thanks for the article. Much needed attention to the problem. LDV regular contributors too quiet on this one?

  • Thank you to Humphrey Hawksley for this article.
    My question is what can the U.K. do as a major channel of finance?
    The government is at the moment engaged in highly publicised discussions with the EU about the concepts such as the idea of level playing field in trade. As a party we need to spell out the ways in which we would like to see our standards improved rather than weakened.
    I have no idea how this should be done. I would however start with giving an enforceable duty to the board of a company to ensure that the supply chain did not use slave labour, bribery and so on.
    Perhaps we might look at the limits of limited liability, and question whether members of boards should not be held personally liable in some cases.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 28th Nov '20 - 2:45pm

    Thanks, Tom Harney. The government and MPs could make public reminders to the confectionary companies of their UN obligation about human rights abuse in their supply chains and activate legislation against them if they refuse to comply. But, David Garlick is right. There is very little traction even within our party on this issue of modern slavery, probably because it is far away and complex. There is plenty of debate about the simpler issue of statues and historic slavery with many activists failing to see a connection.

  • The lawsuit was originally filed in 2005 and has been twice dismissed by a federal judge. It remains a sad fact that today Nestle are one of the better buyers in monitoring their food supply chains (I have no personal connection with the brand).
    The real issue we should be addressing is the poor governance and regulations in countries that continue to allow these abuses to happen. The failure to hold these governments accountable for the abuses that occur in their countries is a problematic and colonial attitude bordering on bias.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 28th Nov '20 - 5:12pm

    You are right Lisa Brett. But its a rotten circle. Cocoa is 40% of Ivory Coast’s export meaning that Nestle and the confectionary industry have real leverage to strengthen government, build roads, hospitals and so on. But they haven’t done that. Poverty in the cocoa belt is absolutely appalling and starkly unacceptable given the wealth it creates. Does blame really lie with governments that we know are corrupt and have values different to ours? Or does it lie with the multi-national corporations that encourage or at least turn a blind eye to corruption in order to profit from weak instititions. I would be interest to know a Liberal Democrat view on this question.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Nov '20 - 10:43am

    Humphrey – what are your thoughts on the referendum taking place today in Switzerland about making Swiss companies (whic hwould presumably include Nestle) take more responsibility for their overseas actions which may impact on human rights and evironmental damage?

  • Humphrey Hawksley 29th Nov '20 - 11:27am

    Yes. Thank you. An interesting coincidence and feeds into Lisa Brett’s point. If Nestle is bound by Swiss law to eradicate slavery, it has even more leverage on governments in the developing world to force change. But the Swiss parliament and corporate sector has already warned against such measures. At state and federal level, the U.S. has several similar laws about supply chain human rights abuse. The UK pretty much turns a blind eye. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act is mostly used against forms of slavery here, trafficking by Asian and European gangs.

  • neil sandison 29th Nov '20 - 5:20pm

    just shows you prolonged periods of conservatism regardless of country can set you back centuries in human progress and dignity . social liberalism is all about improving the human condition valuing others and enabling and empowering the weak to make their own choices rather than suffer from the suppression of the wealthy and powerful .
    Even in our newish century it is still right to stand up for the liberty and humanity of others .

  • Peter Hirst 30th Nov '20 - 4:27pm

    It’s our demand for cheap commodities that partly causes this issue. All should be fair trade so that everyone working in these industries receives a fair wage. Then there will be more leverage to enforce anti-slavery legislation. Part of the fair trade contract should be free and fair employment overseen by the Fair Trade Association.

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Nov '20 - 9:33pm

    I am late to this but very glad you raised it, Humphrey, and have read the comments with attention. We mustn’t let our party also turn a blind eye to issues of social justice abroad, and this is the sort of issue that should be taken up by our foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran (please let her know of this article and comments), and raised in Conference motions. Though currently preoccupied myself with social justice in this country, threatened as ever by our government and the ending of the Brexit transition period, I want to be reminded of our need to care about issues such as this. (And the cutting of the proportion of GNP to 5% for foreign aid, of course, a real demonstration of the government’s readiness to embrace easy vote-winning immoral policies, showing the claw beneath the soft glove of Tory concern.)

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