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Mon 6 July 2020
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As part of his continuing exploration of Modern Slavery, James Melville looks at the exploitation behind the cocoa industry.

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For many of us, chocolate symbolises a gastronomic treat, but in Western Africa, it represents an industry that enslaves and imprisons children, exploiting them for free labour.

There are an estimated 40.3 million people — more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade — that are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest figures published by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation. Children makeup 25% and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide.

According to a 2015 US Labour Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labour in cocoa-growing regions. 1.8 million of them work on the cocoa farms of Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

This mass harvesting of cocoa for our chocolate comes at an enormous cost to the human rights of millions of people, in the form of child slave labour on cocoa farms in Western Africa. We are literally gorging ourselves by eating chocolate sourced from the hands of a child slave.


Trafficking and the Cocoa Industry

Chocolate is a product of the cocoa bean, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of Western Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western African countries, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa. The cocoa they grow and harvest is sold to the majority of major chocolate companies around the world.

The harvesting of cocoa is still shrouded in secrecy, with the farms making it difficult for reporters not to only access where human rights violations still occur but also face risks when passing this information to the public.

In 2004, the Ivorian First Lady’s entourage allegedly kidnapped and killed a journalist reporting on government corruption in its profitable cocoa industry. In 2010, Ivorian government authorities detained three newspaper journalists after they published an article exposing government corruption in the cocoa sector.

In Western Africa, cocoa is a commodity crop grown primarily for export; 60% of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue comes from its cocoa. As the chocolate industry has grown over the years, so has the demand for cheap cocoa. On average, cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, an income below the poverty line. As a result, they often resort to the use of child labour to keep their prices competitive.

The children of Western Africa are surrounded by intense poverty, and most begin working at a young age to help support their families. Other children are sold to traffickers or farm owners by their own relatives, who are unaware of the dangerous work environment, the pittance of labour payments (or exploited for no pay) and the lack of any provisions for an education.

Often, traffickers abduct young children from small villages in neighboring African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali — two of the poorest countries in the world. Once they have been taken to the cocoa farms, the children may not see their families for years, if ever.

Most of the children labour on cocoa farms are between the ages of 12 and 16, but children as young as 5 are used to harvest cocoa in West Africa. In addition, 40% of these children are girls. Some stay for a few months, while others end up working on the cocoa farms through adulthood.

Some of the young children on the cocoa farms use chainsaws to clear the forests. Other children climb the cocoa trees to cut bean pods using a machete. The slave children also pack the cocoa pods into sacks that weigh more than 100 pounds and drag them through the forest. All of this violates international employment laws and a UN convention on eliminating the worst forms of child labour.

In addition to the hazards of using chain saws and machetes, children are also exposed to pesticides on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Tropical regions such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast consistently deal with prolific insect populations and choose to spray the pods with large amounts of industrial chemicals. In Ghana, children as young as 10 spray the pods with these toxins without wearing any protective clothing. Slaves on the cocoa farms are also subjected to physical violence, such as being whipped for working slowly or trying to escape.

The world’s chocolate companies have missed international deadlines to uproot child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2015 and now in 2020.

On cocoa farms, 10% of child labourers in Ghana and 40% in the Ivory Coast do not attend school, which violates the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Child Labour Standards. Without an education, the children of the cocoa farms have little hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty. It’s a generational cycle of poverty and slavery entrapment and still the world continues to turn a blind eye.

To date, relatively little progress has been made to reduce or eliminate child labour and slavery in the cocoa industry of Western Africa.  Despite their role in contributing to child labor, slavery, and human trafficking, the chocolate industry has not taken significant steps to remedy the problem. Within their $100 billion industry, chocolate companies have the power to end the use of child labour and slave labor by paying cocoa farmers a living wage for their product. In all, the industry, which collects an estimated $100 billion in sales annually, has spent just £117.9m over 20 years to address the issue. 

After recent journalistic exposés brought the issue to the international stage, several popular chocolate brands were exposed for their participation in the global exploitation of chocolate, including Hershey, Nestlé, Godiva, and Mars. Most of these acknowledged their use of child slaves and some even presented plans to purify their farms of child slavery and labour. The world’s chocolate companies have missed international deadlines to uproot child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2015 and now in 2020.


The problem is often talked about. But talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, without the proper guidelines and repercussions in place, the exploitation of children in harvesting cocoa will continue, due to the low cost or free labour that harvests billions of dollars for chocolate industry annually. Cutting to the chase, cocoa farm child labour hasn’t been eradicated because no one has been willing to force it through.

The chocolate industry has repeatedly been called upon to develop and financially support programs to rescue and rehabilitate children who have been sold to cocoa farms. To date, the industry has done little to remove child slave labour, let alone aid survivors of child labour. Many chocolate companies Still fail to disclose child labour in their supply chains and refuse to release any information about where it sources its cocoa.

The truth is that consumers today have no sure way of knowing if the chocolate they are buying involved the use of slavery or child labour. There are many different labels on chocolate bars today, such as various fair trade certifications and the Rainforest Alliance Certification; however, no single label can guarantee that the chocolate was made without the use of exploitive labour.

In 2009, the founders of the fair trade certification process had to suspend several of their Western African suppliers due to evidence that they were using child labour. Chocolate companies, however, continue to certify their products to tell consumers that they source their cocoa ethically. But in 2011, a Danish film The Dark Side of Chocolate’ investigated farms in Western Africa where major chocolate companies buy cocoa. The documentary exposed illegal child slavery on these farms, including those certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

For the consumers in developed countries, chocolate is a luxury, it is a pleasure that satisfies cravings and symbolises delicious indulgence. However, for the children in West Africa who produce it and have never even tasted the finished product, chocolate represents a wasted life of slavery, abuse, and the end of their childhood. We cannot allow multibillion-dollar companies to keep lining their pockets with the blood, sweat, and tears of children forced into chocolate slavery.

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