OPINION: How can Nespresso tackle child labour in its coffee supply chain?

Friday, 28 February 2020 07:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker picks ripe red coffee beans at the Doka Coffee plantation in Sabanilla de Alajuela, Costa Rica December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even where businesses pay premiums to their suppliers, this is often insufficient to end child labour in communities

Aidan McQuade is an expert on slavery and forced labour and former director of Anti-Slavery International.

No one who has ever dealt with the challenges of agricultural livelihoods in the global South should ever be surprised that child labour remains an issue. However a report that Channel 4’s Despatches programme has filmed children picking coffee beans and hauling sacks on six Guatemalan farms believed to supply Nespresso gives a shocking glimpse of the cynicism with which some businesses seem to treat this issue.

In responding to the reports Guillaume Le Cunff, Nespresso’s CEO, stated that “Nespresso has a zero tolerance of child labour”, and the company noted over the past four years only 15 child labour cases had been identified by third-party auditors in Nespresso’s supply chains. All had been “effectively resolved” according to the business.

However, Mr Le Cunff also mentioned that coffee suppliers are given “a day or two days” advanced notice before spot checks take place. With practices like that, one can only imagine Mr Le Cunff’s shock to discover there is child labour in his supply chain.

RELATED: George Clooney 'saddened' over Nespresso link to child labour in Guatemala

To be fair, audits are used by many big companies to give a façade of transparency rather than actually putting in the hard work that is necessary to more effectively tackle the issue. However, even with the best will in the world, audits are a poor instrument for resolution of child labour.

Unlike child slavery, which is the trafficking of children to a third party for the purposes of exploitation, child labour tends to occur within the family context. In other words, those who practice child labour are often the child’s own parents who are often trying to do their best for their kids in horrendously difficult circumstances.

That parents' best intentions for their child result in child labour is a consequence of poverty. It is a consequence of the poverty of families who put their children into the fields because they may not have enough money to eat, let alone send their kids to school. It is a consequence of the poverty of communities which may not even have schools or, where there are buildings, may not have qualified teachers to staff them.

Audits by their very nature do not address these underlying causes of child labour. As Nespresso appears to practice them, they just make sure that labouring children are not there to be seen when the inspectors show up with their notepads for fear it puts consumers off their coffee.

Even where businesses pay premiums to suppliers for the commodities that they purchase, as Nespresso appears to do, this is often insufficient to end child labour in communities: landless labourers will never benefit from premiums; and families with only small parcels of land still may not earn enough from such payments to obtain a living income.

Hence, it would, paradoxically, be a pity if these reports of Nespresso’s failings put people off buying their coffee. If businesses stop trading with poor communities they will be impoverished further. Instead of boycotting Nespresso consumers should demand better of it and, as George Clooney, Nespresso’s public face for many years, said “hold everyone’s promise to account.”

So what does “doing better” look like? First it requires that businesses recognise that, like any human rights or poverty challenge, child labour is a political issue. That is, it relates to the allocations of power and resources within communities and within wider societies. So if businesses want to address child labour in a meaningful way then they must engage with those issues.

Specifically, they need to act to advance gender equity, economic diversification, and child rights within the communities from which they source ensuring that the distinctive challenges of the landless and, in particular, girls are directly addressed.

Current models of trade and audits simply do not tackle these aspects of poverty. Instead, there must be specific focus on women’s political and economic empowerment in communities, establishing effective cultures of child protection, and ensuring that the landless have a proper stake in the local economy.

Businesses must also work to ensure good governance, both nationally and locally in the countries with which they do business. For example, businesses pay significant amounts in tax to the countries from which they source their commodities.

It is reasonable for them to ask if national governments are using that revenue to effectively reduce poverty in the communities from which they source: Are they providing student grants for needy children? Or do all the schools have enough books and desks?

In spite of the complexities, progress is being made. The number of children in child labour fell by 16 million from 168 million to 152 million between 2012 and 2016. Further progress depends on businesses like Nespresso properly engaging with the issue and its underlying causes.

As such Dispatches provides a moment of truth for the business. We all await to see if they rise to the challenge or merely tinker with their public relations.