The Chocolate Industry: Slavery Lurking Behind the Sweetness

When most people bite into a candy bar, it is unlikely that they take even a moment to consider where the chocolate they enjoy comes from. If they knew, it probably wouldn't taste as sweet.

In 1998, an investigation by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a UN agency, uncovered a reemergence of child slavery in the cocoa fields of the Ivory Coast, where 43 percent of the world's cocoa comes from. Two years later, a report by the US State Department concluded that in recent years approximately 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations in the north of the country. At the beginning of the 21st century, the children of West Africa are trapped in conditions that were supposed to have been eliminated in the 19th century.

The reemergence of child slavery can be blamed, in part, by a downturn in the price of raw cocoa. Cocoa prices are currently in a slump, the casualty of global overproduction. The price drop has been exacerbated by deregulation of agriculture in West Africa, which abolished commodity boards across the region, leaving small farmers at the mercy of the market. With prices in the basement, cocoa farmers have been forced to cut their labor costs, and tragically that has meant relying on slave labor.

The six largest cocoa producing countries are the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon. In these countries, cocoa has especially significant effects on the economy and the population. For example, in Ghana, cocoa accounts for 40% of total export revenues, and two million farmers are employed in cocoa production.

In the Ivory Coast, much of the work of picking the cocoa pods, slicing them open, and then scooping out the cocoa beans is done by slaves. The child slaves come from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo — nations that are even more destitute than the impoverished Ivory Coast. Parents in these countries sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast and then send their earnings home.

But as soon as they are separated from their families, the young boys are made to work for nothing. The child slaves work long and hard — they head into the fields at 6:00 in the morning and often do not finish until 6:30 at night. Beatings by farm owners and managers are common.

"The beatings were a part of my life," Aly Diabate, a freed slave, told reporters earlier this year. "Anytime they loaded you with bags [of cocoa] and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again." Though he had worked countless days harvesting cocoa pods — 400 of which are needed to make a pound of chocolate — Diabate has never tasted the finished product. "I don't know what chocolate is," he told the press.

For years, US chocolate manufacturers have said they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don't own them. But the $13 billion chocolate industry is heavily consolidated, with just two firms — Hershey's and M&M/Mars — controlling two-thirds of the US chocolate candy market. This means that if these global corporations really wanted to reform problems in the supply chain, they have the power and the ability to do so.

This year the chocolate industry finally stopped denying responsibility for the problems in West Africa after a string of media exposŽs and the threat of government action jeopardized their image and business-as-usual. Frightened by the thought of any sort of regulation, the chocolate industry said it would take steps to eliminate child slavery. On November 30, 2001 the US chocolate industry announced, in a Joint Statement with the International Union of Foodworkers, the ILO, Free the Slaves, and the Child Labor Coalition, to establish a joint foundation to oversee and sustain efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor and forced labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans and their derivative products.

However, the plan does not address the basic issue of prices for small farmers. Fortunately, there is a way to correct the economic imbalances of the cocoa system: Fair Trade. Fair Trade is an international system of monitoring and certification to guarantee that poor producers are paid a fair price for their harvests. Monitoring agencies from importing countries collaborate with diverse networks of cooperatives from producing countries to create a humane trading system that benefits people and the environment.

While the global price for cocoa hovers around 40 cents per pound, the Fair Trade system guarantees farmers 80 cents per pound, giving them the income to support their families with dignity. See the full criteria of Fair Trade.

GX is pressuring one of the biggest Valentine's Day chocolate candy retailers, See's Candies. We are demanding that corporations take responsibility for ensuring that the farmers who grow the product that makes them rich are paid a fair price – and that they commit to purchasing at least five percent of their cocoa as Fair Trade Certified.

Chocolate is often given as a sign of affection. This year, don't give chocolate as a gift. After all, would your loved ones want a sweet stained with blood and sweat?


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