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Slaves to chocolate

Sweet nothings: chocolate companies have failed to curb child labour on cocoa farms in Cote d'Ivoire.

Photo by International Labor Rights Forum

People around the world share a love of chocolate, one of the most delicious and pleasurable foods on earth. However, thousands of Africa’s children, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, are forced to labour in the production of cocoa. They are modern-day slaves, bonded to their employers and forced against their will to work in hazardous and heartbreaking conditions. Denied access to basic education, medical care, and in many cases, the comfort and reassurance of their own families, these children have no voice and little hope for the future.

This is no revelation. It is more than eight years since the international media first exposed the use of trafficked child labour in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire. In response, the major chocolate companies signed an agreement that they would stop the worst forms of child labour in their cocoa supply chains. Unfortunately, the complexities of global supply chains have made it easy for them to evade action, even when there is consumer demand for change. Most of these companies have not instituted supply chain management programmes to ensure that they are complying with international labour standards. And so, the problem continues.

Instead, the chocolate companies and cocoa traders complicit in child labour have chosen as their preferred ‘fix’ to fund and support programmes that blame the victims, presuming to teach cocoa farming communities the difference between ‘good parents’ and ‘bad parents’ – bad parents being those who have too many children and can’t support them and therefore sell them to traffickers, or force them to work instead of going to school.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has made many visits to Côte d’Ivoire and it has never met a single parent who would not have preferred their child to go to school, get an education, and have a better future. The problem is that many parents have no choice: there are simply no schools, no teachers and no books. Their children have to work because these cocoa farmers do not receive a fair price for their beans and as a result, live in poverty. And a recent study by the Payson Centre at Tulane University has shown that, despite millions of dollars and many years, the chocolate companies’ charitable efforts are not having a broad impact on improving the lives of children on cocoa farms.

Cargill, a major cocoa trader, has been honest about the reasons behind its failure effectively to address the problem. It admitted, in its public response to an ILRF action last year, that it did not have sufficient ‘market incentive’ to eliminate slavery from its supply chain. Consumers can avoid eating chocolate by one company or another. However, as Cargill is selling to all of them, can you be sure your chocolate did not go through Cargill’s hands?

What should consumers do? First, reward companies that can tell you how the farmers and workers that produced your chocolate were treated. Fair Trade certification is a good start. Continue to demand that the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers, including Hershey, Nestlé and Cadbury, answer the question as to how you can be assured no exploited or trafficked child labour was used in the making of their products. Finally, contribute to the organizations that are doing meaningful grassroots work to help farmers and children in West Africa – look for the groups that do NOT receive corporate funding. Together we can end slavery and exploitation in Africa’s cocoa trade.

*Bama Athreya* and *Tim Newman*,
International Labor Rights Forum

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