Slaves to Chocolate: The High Cost of Market Incentives  

I’ve been covering issues related to the production of chocolate through the use of child slave labor for a few years now. In all of that time, I didn’t really have a moment to really feel like anyone was listening inside the walls of Congress. Today, however, Congress doesn’t have to act on this, the Department of Labor has and the tone is set in the opening paragraph to their List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor report:

As a nation and as members of the global community, we reject the proposition that it is acceptable to pursue economic gain through the forced labor of other human beings or the exploitation of children in the workplace. However, we are aware that these problems remain widespread in today’s global economy. Indeed, we face these problems in our own country. The International Labor Organization estimates that over 12 million persons worldwide are working in some form of forced labor or bondage and that more than 200 million children are at work, many in hazardous forms of labor. The most vulnerable persons – including women, indigenous groups, and migrants – are the most likely to fall into these exploitive situations and the current global economic crisis has only exacerbated their vulnerability.

What’s hardest to conceive of in the issues surrounding child slave labor in chocolate production is really how easy it could be to fix. Let’s start with the world’s major producer, Côte d’Ivoire. Did you know that Cote d'Ivoire produces about 40% of the world supply of cocoa, and this cocoa comes from about 600,000 total farms in this very small West African country.

The 600,000 producers are often very small farms where children are forced to work to help their families or are sold to larger farms. From the New Internationalist

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.

The problem of child slavery in chocolate production comes from control of revenues, revenues which were used to fund a civil war. I’m sure everyone knows the “Golden Rule”, He who has the Gold makes the Rules? Well, that’s the case in Côte d’Ivoire. It's a horrendous situation for thousands of children. This is a very real problem caused by poverty and war and held in place by greed and abuse:
An investigative report by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in 2000 indicated the size of the problem. According to the BBC, hundreds of thousands of children are being purchased from their parents for a pittance, or in some cases outright stolen, and then shipped to the Ivory Coast, where they are sold as slaves to cocoa farms. These children typically come from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Destitute parents in these poverty-stricken lands sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast and then send some of their earnings home. But that's not what happens. These children, usually 12-to-14-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, are barely fed, are beaten regularly, and are often viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.

Today, I’m thrilled that the US Department of Labor has listed cocoa production in their report. What I was a bit disturbed by, was my utter lack of knowledge of other child slave produced products like Electronics, Fireworks, garments and textiles from China; Coal from Pakistan; Shrimp from Thailand; and how often child slave labor is associated with clothing from the harvesting of cotton to the production of the garment in countries as divergent as Argentina, India and Uzbekistan.

We have a long way to go to end forced labor all over the world. I think a good first step is for Congress and the President to no longer agree to more Favored Nation status’ or Free Trade Agreements with countries that can’t do the bare minimum for the most vulnerable in society. These products and their raw materials shouldn’t even be on the market and should never reach the shelves at our local stores. Best way to stop it, is to start with Trade, and that’s up to the Politicians we elect. I mean, they do work for us, don’t they?

The next thing we can all do, is to take a step back, put down the coffee and cocoa and check the labels on our clothes and other textiles. If they’re made in a country on this list or the cotton comes from one of these countries, look elsewhere. Look toward local chocolatiers for that chocolate fix (list available in link of a few chocolaty suggestions) and find ways to recycle clothes from the Good Will or a local thrift store that supports causes you do. Look for the union made label, you’ll get a great item and know that it was not child slave labor produced.

And one last thing, let folks know what you’re doing. Let them know that you don’t support child slave labor and that’s why you’re not buying chocolates right now. It’s your way of sending a message to companies like Cargill, companies that just don’t care who produces the materials they trade:

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?

It’s really time these companies looked at children and saw something other than Market Incentives, it’s time they actually see in children what they are, our future.

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  • Robin  
    1:31 PM

    Hi there, just noticed something and wanted to correct something you wrote. If you check the actual Dept of Labor report concerning Jordan, Jordan was NOT cited for child labor, rather they were cited for forced labor (look at the definition differences between the two) On page 117 of the DOL report it gives a long list of reports done by the National Labor Committee which were responsible for Jordan being cited for forced labor. All of those cases took place in the QIZ zones which ironically enjoy their duty free status to export to the US. Just start researching it if you are interested. Most of these reports concerned foreign labor imported to Jordan to work for LOW WAGES, live and eat at these garment factories at up to 100 hour weeks. Products can be purchased at WalMart and Target amongst other US retailers.

  • bendygirl  
    1:54 PM

    Thanks Robin. You're right, it was my Typo, I meant India, which is on page 24 of Part II of the report. Sometimes, my eyes fail me on the computer screen.

    I've updated my story to reflect my error.

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