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EU urged to draft law on child labor, deforestation in coffee and cocoa

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union must set mandatory rules to tackle child labor and deforestation in the cocoa and coffee sectors, after years of voluntary action has failed to spur widespread change, stakeholders and policymakers said on Wednesday.

As a top importer of cocoa and coffee, the bloc must take firmer action to tackle child labor and forest degradation in these supply chains, speakers told a European Parliament hearing on the issue.

In 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging the European Commission to explore legislative measures to tackle child labor in cocoa. However, the Commission ultimately did not move to draft a law addressing the issue.

“We, Europeans - as major consumers of cocoa, of chocolate - we have a responsibility in how the supply chains work,” said Linda McAvan, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development.

Globally, there are some 152 million working children aged between 5 and 17, according to the International Labour Organization. About 71 percent work in agriculture, from herding livestock to harvesting coffee, cocoa and tea.

In Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world’s top growers of cocoa, some 2.1 million children work on cocoa plantations, according to the 2018 Cocoa Barometer.

Although coffee and chocolate companies have tried to tackle the problem through voluntary schemes, change has been slow and small-scale.

Stakeholders called for greater urgency and legislation on the issue, as the international community inches closer to a self-imposed 2025 deadline for eliminating child labor.

“We are not on track,” said Antonie Fountain of the Voice Network, an association of NGOs and trade unions working on sustainability in cocoa. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

To effectively address the issue, the EU must set mandatory standards, possibly including due diligence legislation forcing companies to look for child labor and deforestation within their supply chains, MEPs and NGOs said.

This would even out the playing field for companies since it would mandate the whole sector to improve its practices, Fountain told the hearing.

Any measures must also tackle poverty in producing communities. Many farmers in West Africa live below the World Bank’s poverty line of $2 a day, which means they struggle to afford adult workers and rely on their children instead.

“We must continue to ... address the endemic poverty and social vulnerability that drives much of child labor,” said Federico Blanco of the International Labour Organization.

Companies and governments - including the European Union - have also made multiple pledges to halt deforestation in recent years, but progress in combating that issue has also been slow.

Ivory Coast and Ghana have lost the majority of their forest cover, with cocoa production a key driver. Ivory Coast estimates about 40 percent its cocoa comes from protected areas.

The European Commission published a feasibility study earlier this year, concluding legislation was needed to tackle deforestation effectively.

“Voluntary compliance has not led to the impact that we were hoping to see,” said Obed Owusu-Addai, founding member of the EcoGhana association.

Reporting by Julia Echikson and Ana Ionova; Editing by Adrian Croft