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Nestlé on PR offensive to counter USA legal charges over child slavery

Press release 28 September 2006

As UK Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, speaks on the 200th anniversary of the aboltion of slavery at the Labour Party Conference today, controversy builds over the involvement of a corporation accused of on-going complicity in child slavery sponsoring fringe meetings.

Nestlé, the world's largest food company, apparently refused to attend an investigation called by US Senator Horkins about child slavery in the cocoa industry last week, choosing instead to sponsor two fringe meetings about slavery (right) and African development at the UK Labour Party Conference. See quotes and interviews with those involved below.

CSM flier

Nestlé’s continued aggressive marketing of babyfoods ensures its top place as the UK’s most boycotted company and one of the 4 most boycotted on the planet, (GMI poll) . The Boycott is supported by many Labour MPs and several people questioned the wisdom of choosing this company as a sponsor for such sensitive events.

The International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) has brought legal action against Nestlé on behalf of children in the Ivory Coast using US legislation on 'crimes against humanity' (click here for an interview with the Director of ILRF). The Ivory Coast is the source of about half the world’s cocoa. According to ILRF, Nestlé is not denying child slavery is taking place, nor is it denying it is complicit in this. Its defence to the legal action is that child slavery is not a “crime against humanity” and so not covered by the US legislation. Senator Horkins was instrumental in signing the chocolate industry up to the Horkins – Engel Protocol in 2001 to end child slavery in their supply chain. The industry’s failure to implement this led to the current legal action and the planned public meeting on 18 September, which Nestlé and the rest of the industry apparently boycotted.

ILRF's Director, Bama Athreya, claims that Nestlé and the industry seem to have done nothing to address the issue of child slavery over the past 5 years. The only change they have found is that farmers have been warned off talking to investigators and an in consumer countries PR offensives linking companies to good causes have increased. Inevitably, at the Christian Socialist Movement fringe meeting on slavery on 25 September Nestlé presented a sanitized picture of its policies and practices. Nestle’s Hilary Parsons, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, also made several admissions:  

"In cocoa Nestle does not have direct dealings: we buy on international markets.  However we and others in the industry have made it clear that the worst forms of child labour are not acceptable and we are working on several fronts to address the issue. The vast majority of cocoa comes from small family owned farms. An independent large scale survey of cocoa farms  revealed that while there are important issues that need to be addressed, most farmers grow cocoa responsibly.  However, we must also be realistic in West Africa there are approximately 2 million cocoa farms. Mostly in some of the most remote regions of the world.  It would be impossible to say with any confidence how each and every one of these 2 million farms operates.  Now Industry has come together on this issue, that is Hershey, Mars, Cadbury’s etc take steps with other industries  to address practices in the supply chain. …..So to conclude: we consciously include CSR in our basic strategy in building companies, particularly in  developing countries. The Food industry is highly competitive with consumers able to change brand allegiences quickly. Each day Nestle must sell a billion units to maintain sales and profit growth.  That is why Nestle has spent decades building trust in brands that we hope will last for many more. To remain the worlds largest food and beverage company we believe that building CSR into the basic value chain and company strategy and tackling the serious issues under discussion tonight is absolutely critical.”  

David Lammy, Minister for Culture, made his discomfort clear:

“My inclusion on this panel tonight in no way endorses Nestle and the acknowledgement that there are still child labour practices  attached to some of their products….  I’m on this platform because it’s a CSM platform and I am very proud of the CSM tradition in the Party.  I have to say that CSM couldn’t find another sponsor for this event and I believed it was important that conference this year had an opportunity to come together and talk about an issue that I hold dear. I’ve written to Nestle and made clear that there are serious concerns that need to be answered, I’ve heard the contribution this evening, I’ve listened like you and I too am concerned about some of those practices as hard as they may be to stop that it the bottom line is that profits are made from practices that we would like to see an end to in this Century.”

Responding to questions about its appalling record on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, Hilary Parsons denied that the company did any public promotion in the developing world and claimed that the Nestle Boycott and its bad image is only a problem in the UK, Italy and Australia.

For more information contact:   Patti Rundall, Baby Milk Action's Policy Director on 07786 523493 or Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator on 07986 736179.

Mike Brady said:

"It concerns us when organisations that should be our natural partners join forces with Nestlé in public relations events because it may cause people to question whether the boycott of Nestlé is still on. The boycott remains essential as Nestlé continues to be the worst of the baby food companies in pushing its products and undermining breastfeeding. It does force some changes. Fundamental to our work is giving a voice to people in developing countries. To ensure their concerns were not ignored, we conducted leafleting outside the Nestlé events, raised questions and posted interviews on our website. If Nestlé was refused as a sponsor a little more often while malpractice continues perhaps it would be easier for campaigners to hold it to account."


  1. Nestle sponsored two Fringe meetings: Is Slavery History? organized by the Christian Socialist Movement, and 18 months after the Commission for Africa – maintaining the Momentum organized by the Foreign Policy Centre. Nestlé refused to attend a European Parliament public hearing into its baby food marketing in 2000 and refuses to even set out its terms and conditions for an independent, expert tribunal we are proposing. Trade unionists in the Philippines have called for international solidarity struggle to persuade Nestlé to negotiate over retirment benefits, which it refuses to do despite a Supreme Court order that it should. The trade union has been on strike for nearly 5 years and on 22 September held a day of mourning for the President of their union, who was assassinated by unknown gun men a year ago (click here for an interview with the General Secretary of the union recorded shortly before the Labour Party Conference).

  2. While companies claim it is difficult to monitor their supply chains, the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation has certified 8,000 farms in Ivory Coast as complying with its strict criteria. Unfortunately, the cooperative is unable to sell all the coffee it produces to Fairtrade chocolate companies and the transnational corporations are not supporting the Fairtrade initiative. As a result the cooperative has to sell some of its cocoa at normal world market rates. One of the buyers is Nestlé. So while it could deal with the farmers paying a fair price and fulfilling Fairtrade criteria, such as long-term contracts, it chooses not too. At the same time Nestlé uses its one and only Fairtrade product, Partners' Blend coffee, in its public relations campaigns to counter criticisms of its trading practices .

  3. Nestlé is the target of the boycott as independent monitoring finds it is responsible for more violations the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions than any other company.

  4. Baby Milk Action is a not-for-profit organisation and the UK member of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). It is funded by membership fees, merchandise sales and donations, along with grants from development organisations and charitable trusts.

  5. The boycott of Nestlé focuses on Nescafé, its flagship product, but Baby Milk Action lists the brands from which Nestlé profits so boycott supporters can avoid them all. Guardian reported on 1 September 2005: "What do Nike, Coca Cola, McDonald's and Nestlé have in common? Apart from being among the world's most well-known brands, they happen to be the most boycotted brands on the planet. That finding came from this week's global GMIPoll, an online opinion poll that surveyed 15,500 consumers in 17 countries. Nestlé emerges as the most the most boycotted brand in the UK because of what respondents consider its "unethical use and promotion of formula feed for babies in third world countries."

  6. Nestlé won a global internet poll for the world's 'least responsible company' coinciding with the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005. Nestlé received 29% of the votes. This was more than twice that of joint second Monsanto and Dow Chemicals (of Bhopal infamy), each on 14% ( click here for details ).

  7. For information on baby food marketing malpractice see the codewatch and boycott sections of this website. The Corporate Watch website has a detailed report on Nestlé.

  8. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.5 million infants die around the world every year because they are not breastfed. See the Your Questions Answered section.

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