In the United States, Valentine’s Day is synonymous with giant heart-shaped boxes packed with irresistible chocolate. But what if Americans were more aware that the chocolate they savor this holiday was a product of child slave labor?
Recently, 137 children between the ages of six and 17 working in the cocoa industry were rescued in a series of raids in the African town of Aboisso. Twelve traffickers were arrested as part of the incident. According to reports, the rescued children were tragically the victims of forced labor and sex work. Police in Côte d’Ivoire have vowed to increase efforts to stop the exploitation of children but the number of police operations will be dependent on the amount of funding available.
The chocolate industry generated $103 billion in 2017 and is expected to generate $161 billion by 2024. It is extremely lucrative for large chocolate processors, while cocoa farmers usually profit somewhere between $1,400 and $2,000 per year. Sadly, only 3-6% of the retail price of chocolate goes into the hands of the cocoa farmers.
West Africa supplies 70% of the world’s chocolate, with much of it going to companies like Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars. Sadly, cocoa cultivation is characterized by extreme and inhumane working conditions primarily involving young children.
In an op-ed with Teen Vogue, former Miss Africa discussed her personal experiences growing up working on her family’s cocoa farm. She described herself as one of the lucky ones, even though she had to work until sunset in the fields most days because she worked alongside her family and her grandmother treated her well.
The reality for many children in West Africa is much bleaker. Although the majority of children are exploited by the chocolate industry between the ages of 12 and 16, children as young as 5 have been documented as workers on cocoa plantations. Roughly 40% of these children are girls and a majority of them will never receive any formal education. The labor that they perform consists of harvesting and splitting cocoa pods with machetes leaving many of them with scars on their hands and legs from work-related injuries. They are also required to drag cocoa sacks that weigh on average 100 pounds and to apply harsh chemicals to crops without any protective clothing.
How do children end up working at some of these cocoa operations? Some children were promised well-paying work by traffickers while others were encouraged by their families to alleviate the challenges of widespread poverty in the region. Traffickers often give the families a dishonest representation of what their child’s fortune will be once they arrive at the plantation. Others are abducted by traffickers and sold to farmers. In the documentary, The Darkside of Chocolate, a trafficker explains that one person will obtain the children, and another will take them across the border, while sometimes another still will supply them to the farmers.
How do we end child slave labor in cocoa production?
In 2001, many large chocolate manufacturers committed to end child labor in their supply chains by 2005. Almost 20 years after the agreement, however, child labor is still very much a problem with anti-slavery organization Walk Free Foundation estimating in a 2018 report that there are 890,000 children working in the cocoa sector.
Frustrated with the lack of progress from self-regulation, some countries have turned to legislation and other legal mechanisms. The Dutch passed legislation in Summer of 2019 that demands corporations perform due diligence to prevent child labor in their supply chains. The hope is that the law will create greater transparency and level the playing field for companies that desire to do better. Often, there is a monetary cost that comes with doing good, whether that be paying more to farmers, or paying for investigations into operations to ensure there are no human rights violations. Although a spokesperson said that strict enforcement is expected, questions linger about the penalty for noncompliance.
A current lawsuit against Nestle and Cargill that has been moving through the federal court system for almost 15 years could either provide corporations with more shelter or more responsibility, depending on whether the Supreme Court chooses to hear the case. Brought by six former cocoa farm slaves that were kidnapped as children from their native Mali, the suit alleges the plaintiffs worked 14 hour days, subject to starvation and physical abuse, and that the companies named in the lawsuit were aware of the abuse. Nestle said in response that its company “unequivocally condemns child slavery”.
There are attempts in West Africa to improve the situation. Ghana and the Ivory Coast are aligning to set a minimum price for cocoa beans in an attempt to make sure the farmers are fairly compensated. There is also more discussion of attempting to process cocoa locally in order to get a bigger piece of the profits. Fairafric is an organization that is building factories in Ghana to process cocoa locally. They have an investment model that allows people to contribute funds to the organization, but unlike a charitable donation, the venture, if successful, will return people’s money to them, with interest.
If chocolate manufacturers won’t do their due diligence, then consumers must. To celebrate Valentine’s Day there are many ways to let people know they are loved besides candy. Write a letter to them, get a pack of delicious and sustainably raised steaks from a local farmer, plant a tree, make a homemade gift, do an act of service together, or plan a special outing. If you do choose chocolate this holiday, opt for brands like Taza, Green & Black, and Alter Eco that have made efforts to address human rights issues in chocolate production in lieu of companies like Hershey’s, Lindt, and Godiva that continue to fall short. Chocolate labeled with an FLO, IMO, or Fair Trade certification is also a good pick.
Some websites like Slave Free Chocolate provide resources for sending letters and raising awareness about this pervasive issue, as well.
One way to address these issues is for developed nations to reimagine cultural norms and create new holiday traditions that aren’t centered around consumption.
For more information on being a mindful consumer head over to the Sacred Cow blog.
This post was written by Roxanne Ahern. She is a writer, regenerative homesteader, certified permaculture designer, and holistic nutritionist. She’s a contributor to the forthcoming documentary and book project “Sacred Cow: The environmental, nutritional, and ethical case for better meat” and raises katahdin sheep, Nigerian dwarf goats, fruit, and vegetables on a 44 acre homestead in the Southeast with her family. Find her at www.happyholistichomestead.com and follow her on Instagram @happyholistichomestead.