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Updated: Palmer opposes grant for Mars Wrigley expansion, citing industrywide child labor in cocoa farming

Updated: Palmer opposes grant for Mars Wrigley expansion, citing industrywide child labor in cocoa farming

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Editor's note: This story has been revised to clarify the position of Unbound Waco, the nonprofit that fights human trafficking. The organization's letter to the city council raised concerns about child labor in the supply chain of companies such as Mars Wrigley that receive city incentives but did not call for the council to reject incentives to the company. 

Kelly Palmer broke with the rest of the Waco City Council on Tuesday night, citing bitter realities about child labor in the chocolate industry as her reason for casting the only vote against a $550,000 grant for Mars Wrigley’s Waco plant.

The five-year grant is in exchange for a planned $31 million, 23,000-square-foot expansion of the Mars Wrigley plant, which has been in Waco since 1975. The expansion is slated for completion in June 2022. Under the agreement, Mars Wrigley must maintain its current workforce of 620 and pay at least $15 an hour.

Palmer, social worker and social work professor at Baylor University, cited a U.S. Department of Labor report estimating 2 million children are forced to work as laborers for cocoa production every year.

“As I sit up here as an anti-trafficking professional, I am incredibly concerned about this incentive deal,” Palmer said.

In 2001 Mars, Nestle, Hershey and other chocolate companies agreed to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a public-private agreement to “eradicate” child labor in their supply chains by 2005 and planned to take other steps, including creating labels to indicate products made without child labor. The deadline came and went, and the industry has struggled to meaningfully combat child labor.

“They are looking at this from a variety of angles, however having been in that space of looking at the abuse, exploitation and trafficking of children since 2009, I’m not convinced Mars will make an effort to reduce this incredible injustice from their supply chain,” Palmer said.

Mayor Dillon Meek said the council is committed to equity and justice, but the 620 existing jobs the incentive is intended to support would combat generational poverty.

“This is a council that is really thoughtful about how we can improve the world around us,” Meek said.

Council Member Jim Holmes said many industries have supply chain issues and he would still vote “yes” on the measure. Later in the meeting, he said Mars Inc. has spent about $2 billion trying to root out child labor, which speaks to the company’s commitment.

Council Member Andrea Barefield said the impact of human trafficking is “devastating” but that the vote would make “no difference today.”

“I don’t know if there is a force in existence today without some manner of supply chain crisis,” Barefield said. “It’s simply the nature of the world.”

Palmer said local anti-trafficking organizations Jesus Said Love and Unbound Waco both signed letters in opposition to the measure.

Unbound Waco officials later noted that their letter to the city council did not express outright opposition to the incentives but raised concerns about "the possibility of exploitation in the supply chain of companies that receive economic incentives through the city."

"Dangerous child labor practices in the cocoa industry are a serious concern, as children in many cocoa-growing regions of the world are exploited through hard labor," Unbound executive director Susan Peters wrote. "We appreciate your attention to this issue and ask that you continue to monitor the matter and hold companies accountable for ensuring an absence of exploitation within their supply chains."

On the other hand, the letter acknowledged the role that living wage jobs in Waco play to "protect our community members from exploitation and provide security and opportunity to families across Waco."

Council Member Josh Borderud said the issue also concerns him, but he still voted yes because of Mars Wrigley’s efforts to correct the situation.

Council Member Hector Sabido said he would support the measure because many residents of his district work for Mars and the company takes care of its Waco employees.

In February, The Guardian reported Mars, along with Nestle, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz were named as defendants in a lawsuit by International Rights Advocate on behalf of eight former child slaves who said they were forced on west African cocoa plantations without pay as teenagers.

Kris Collins, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said the Mars Wrigley plant in Waco has helped bring other businesses to the area, supported the chamber of commerce and participated regularly in charitable efforts locally.

Palmer asked if the chamber of commerce staff members know there are open lawsuits against Mars.

“Child slavery is something I have specific expertise on, and I think if I was not at this dais this would have been rubber stamped and gone through, and that’s problematic to me,” Palmer said. “So I want to know that regardless of who is in these six (city council) seats, we have an idea who these companies are.”

Barefield said the council is still busy righting wrongs from the 1600s, and Palmer responded that modern day and historic slavery are similar wrongs.

Barefield agreed, but said the council’s main responsibility is to Waco residents.

“As we walk through this process, what we can do in the position we have now is do the best we can,” Barefield said.

Mars Inc.’s strategies to try to prevent child labor include monitoring its supply chains, training farmers in West African countries on how to tell when children are being trafficked and working with third-party groups to conduct inspections of farms.

In 2018 the company reported sourcing nearly 400,000 metric tons of cocoa annually from Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines and Vietnam with the majority coming from Ghana, Indonesia and Ivory Coast. As of 2019, the company was able to trace a third of its supply back to its farm of origin, up from 24% of its supply a year earlier, a company spokesperson said.

Mars’ first human rights report, published this year, states the company expanded child labor monitoring to 58,000 households in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

“We are working to have 100% of at-risk families in our cocoa supply chains covered by Robust Child and Forced Labor Monitoring and Remediation Systems by 2025,” the report says.

The company aims to reach at least 180,000 cocoa farming households and 540,000 children in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and other counties. In 2020, the company reported its programs had reached more than 175,000 people and plans to reach another 50,000 by the 2025 deadline.

Mars Inc., which owns Mars Wrigley, made $37 billion in sales revenue in 2019, according to Forbes.

Another Mars Inc. report titled “Respecting Human Rights in the Cocoa Supply Chain” states the company works with risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft to research human rights risks across the companies they source cocoa from.

A Verisk Maplecroft report titled “Toxic brew heightens child labour risks in African tea, coffee, cocoa,” states declining cocoa prices over the past 20 years have driven farmers in Ivory Coast to expand and ramp up production. To keep up, traffickers have brought children from Burkina Faso and Mali to clear forest.

“While border closures associated with the pandemic have decreased the flow of child workers between countries, this has compelled many farmers to resort to relying on underage relatives to meet labour requirements,” the report states.

The reported predicts a 16% chance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a ban on cocoa from Ivory Coast.

“The underlying reason for this remote chance is that such a ban would result in a direct economic hit on the US’ largest chocolate manufacturers, given Ivorian cocoa’s leading role in market supply,” the report states.

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