Savage capitalism; not-so-sweet Nutella exposed
Chocolate-related items bring in billions for the Italian company Ferrero, but how exploitative could the production of cocoa, palm oil, and hazelnuts be?
An investigative report by Der Spiegel pictures Savas, 13 years old, crawling around among the hazelnut bushes on the ground.
The report narrates the story of a boy from south-east Turkey deprived of living a proper childhood. Instead of going to the beach during his summer vacation, he gathers hazelnuts from the steep slopes in the hinterland of the city of Ordu. For ten hours a day, Savas bends, crawls, and carries sacks.
For 22 straight days, he was in gray plastic sandals, a sweaty T-shirt, and with a small injury on his right forearm, according to the report. His devastating health state was reflected on his pale face. As the report pictures it, he sat on the farmer's lawn and looked at the hazelnuts he collected then threw up.
A few weeks later, the farmer would sell the nuts that Savas and the other 15 young seasonal workers collected to a long-established company that supplies Ferrero.
What is Ferrero?
The chocolate and nut treat Ferrero is a titan in the confectionery industry. More than any other corporation in the world, the Italian group consumes the most hazelnuts. According to reports, the corporation purchases approximately a quarter of the global harvest for Duplo and Hanuta, which produce products like the Rocher chocolate snowmen. The majority of the nuts are used to make more than 400 million jars of Nutella manufactured annually. Every year, Turkey harvests roughly 700,000 tons of nuts, of which Ferrero obtains about a third.
Due to the numerous intermediaries and processors, the routes taken by the items from the farmer to the manufacturer are frequently convoluted and challenging to track. Because of this, it might be challenging to determine how fairly the world's most well-known spread is actually produced.
The group itself has even formulated its own charter for the three most important Nutella ingredients, hazelnut, cocoa, and palm oil.
Reprobate without a chance
In Turkey, child labor is prohibited. There are exceptions for light work beyond the age of 14, but the International Labor Organization considers hazelnut harvesting to be one of the worst forms of child labor.
Many of the working children drop out of school early because they spend months away with their families or with employment agencies during the harvest season. According to figures from the Turkish Statistical Office, around 720,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 worked in the country in 2019.
According to estimates by NGOs, at least 10% of the 400,000 seasonal workers in the hazelnut harvest are children. Mehmedahif is 19. He started harvesting hazelnuts when he was twelve and has been coming every summer ever since. He wants to study mechatronics and is preparing for an exam without having much hope.
"Actually, I should be sitting in the library with a pen in my hand," he says. "Nutella? It's a luxury product," almost unaffordable for them. The young man is said to be paid 280 Turkish lira (TL), around 15 euros, per day – adjusted for inflation, this is less than the wages of a seasonal worker eleven years ago. Ten percent of the salary went to the placement with foreman Ibrahim and one-fifth to travel expenses.
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Kutsi Yasar runs a small agricultural trade between Giresun and Ordu and is involved with the small farmers' union Farmers Union. He speaks to indebted farmers almost every day. "How are farmers supposed to take child labor to heart when they can't even secure the future of their own children?" he asks. Yasar considers social projects by companies like Ferrero to be an alibi.
“It is important to them that this system stays that way, this peasant crisis that forces many to sell at almost any price.” According to Yasar, the hazelnut trade has made a few rich and left many poor.
The decisive factor is the Ferrero price, which the quasi-monopolist circulated in the industry at the beginning of September. This year, at 48 TL (2.60 euros) per kilo, it is again well below the state price - the hazelnut farmers get even less because of the upstream middlemen.
The frustration with the power of the group is great. "Ferrero is the death of the hazelnut! Get out of our village!” was written on a wall in the village of Aydındere some time ago.
Children by heart, laborers by pay
Ferrero's influence hasn't had much of an impact on the pitiful nut pricing or the working environment. A recent study found that when there are any rooms available, buses and lodging for seasonal employees are infamously congested. Many people sleep in tents or barracks. A third of the laborers must walk to work since the fields lack hot water and restrooms. Ferrero funded the research.
Similar terrible conditions were uncovered by an investigation in 2012. A Dutch television report about a young hazelnut harvester caused a massive backlash and significant uproar in the Netherlands, which led to political intervention and calls for a boycott of Ferrero.
The industry responded. Ferrero started sponsoring initiatives with the UN labor agency ILO to make it possible for the kids of seasonal workers to attend school. Schoolchildren can be seen raising their arms in celebration in images of Ferrero.
According to Ferrero, it is devoted to ensuring that kids "grow up in joy" throughout its supply chain. In reality, the organization only ever reached about 1000 kids annually for a while, despite the fact that at least 40,000 people are thought to be toiling on the slopes, according to its own sustainability report.
Breach of word by the corporations
The situation is significantly worse when it comes to child labor. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was ratified by the major chocolate producers more than 20 years ago. In it, they pledged to end the "worst forms of child labor."
The worst could be prevented using the protocol - not for the children, but for the corporations: a law for "slave-free" chocolate that was already ready in the US Congress. Since then, companies have invested in all sorts of PR measures, let deadlines pass, scaled back goals, and denied.
Ferrero claims that child labor is not acceptable. However, businesses are prepared to put up with it since, according to the most recent estimates, there are 1.6 million children working in the cocoa industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
Expensive marketing, cheap raw materials
Many farmers live below the poverty line, with a daily income of only $1.68, according to an internal Ferrero presentation. Ferrero's marketing expenditures are estimated by the Bonn-based Südwind Institute to be roughly 450 million euros annually, which is a big decrease from the company's advertising budget for Germany, which was approximately 674 million euros from January to November of this year.
According to Südwind expert Friedel Hütz-Adams, the inadequate cocoa price for the estimated 90,000 Ferrero farmers could have easily doubled with the EUR 642 million payout that the Ferrero family approved at the beginning of 2020 alone.
"To cover up the exploitation, companies like Ferrero have hijacked the term sustainability and completely twisted it," says Hütz-Adams. Now cultivation, selection, and traceability are decisive criteria and not the meager price.
The Brundtland Report, which introduced sustainable development in 1987, placed a strong emphasis on the needs of the world's poorest people while also prioritizing the basic requirements of current and future generations.
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However, even with Fairtrade products, companies must accept losses because much more Fairtrade cocoa is produced than is consumed by the businesses. Despite the huge chocolate corporations' commitments to sustainability, the cooperatives that Der Spiegel visited during its research were all left with parts of their fair trade goods.
Only 170,000 tons of the 512,000 tons of Ivorian Fairtrade cocoa were sold in 2020/21 with a premium, which proves the issue. Without having to spend a dime more for it, companies like Ferrero could have stocked up on 342,000 tons of certified cocoa. The business doesn't specify how much Ferrero is engaging in this.
The same goes for nuts. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that the number of child laborers in the harvest seems to be increasing again. A trade unionist from Ordu named Zekai Sayra recounts some of the stakeholder gatherings to which Ferrero invited him. One appointment, in particular, stands out in his memory. Managers from Ferrero displayed a finished package bearing the message, "no child labor."
Since then, he has never heard from it again. Apparently, Ferrero has abandoned this project.
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