ZURICH (Reuters) - Child labor is still widespread on Ivory Coast cocoa farms supplying Nestle NESN.VX, an investigation by a workers' rights group has found, prompting the world's biggest food group to pledge a redoubling of efforts to stamp out the practice.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA), a Washington-based civil society organization, said its investigation was the first time a multinational chocolate producer had allowed its procurement system to be completely traced and assessed.
"The investigation by FLA found that child labor persists despite industry efforts to discourage the employment of children," it said in a statement.
Nestle, which makes chocolate brands like KitKat, Aero and Smarties, said it would act upon all the FLA's recommendations, focusing on raising awareness of the problem on the ground and tackling the attitudes of people who work in the industry.
"The use of child labor in our cocoa supply chain goes against everything we stand for. As the FLA report makes clear, no company sourcing cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) can guarantee that it doesn't happen, but what we can say is that tackling child labor is a top priority for our company," said Jose Lopez, Nestle's Executive Vice President for Operations.
The FLA said it had found multiple serious violations of Nestle's supplier code, often because there are no local laws to provide fair and safe working conditions.
The organization said health and safety problems are rampant, with most injuries due to workers' use of machetes, adding that workers often work excessive hours beyond the 60 hours per week laid down in Nestle's code.
It said there were major challenges to eliminating child labor given that Ivory Coast was still recovering from a civil war, which left infrastructure in rural areas devastated and few alternatives for Ivorian children.
The FLA said action was also needed from farmers, cooperatives, the Ivory Coast government and other companies which source cocoa in the country, but said Nestle could have a profound impact as it buys around 10 percent of the country's cocoa crop.
"For too long child labor in cocoa production has been everybody's problem and therefore nobody's responsibility," FLA President Auret van Heerden said.
"Nestle is taking direct responsibility for decreasing the risks in its supply chain especially when it concerns the persistent challenges of ending child labor."
Nestle said it would build upon its existing efforts to develop a more sustainable cocoa supply and work more closely with its suppliers to make sure they were better trained on the child labor problem and how to address it.
Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Mark Potter