Slavery: Impervious to Time

In the 20th century, slavery in cacao production was rampant in São Tomé and Príncipe where slaves were taken “against their will, and often under conditions of great cruelty” (“Anti Slavery International”, 5) to present day Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire where “2.03 million children [are] found in hazardous work in cocoa production” (“Survey Research on child labor”, 4) catering to the demands of the lucrative cacao crop. The past century saw the lure of cheap labor, which took cacao to new heights of commercialization and within a span of a few decades, made it widely available to the masses at an affordable price. This increased popularity of cacao owes its success to cheap, exploitable labor. And so, slavery continued well into the 20th century and is still very much prevalent all over West Africa in forms of child labor. Lax government laws, corporate multinational practices and ineffective international movements have contributed to the mistreatment of young children who are forced into slavery in Cote d’Ivoire every single day.

The overwhelming dependence of the country on cacao plantations dominates policies, laws and economics. West Africa collectively supplies to the world about 70% of cacao out of which Cote d’Ivoire supplies about 35%, which contributed to 30% of its GDP in 2010 (“Frontier Country Report”, 1). And so, even though the governments have passed laws and policies to improve conditions and abolish the ‘slave-trade’, the nature of the economy doesn’t allow them to do so. The labor is cheap, the dependence is huge, and there is no incentive provided by either the Western Governments or the international community for Cote d’Ivoire to essentially halt or even improve upon these conditions.

boy carrying cacao bag
A young boy in Cote d’Ivoire carrying a heavy bag of cacao beans

During the 20th century, as cacao became a commodity crop and its mass availability to the English society became imminent, it was clear that the “long term economic success of the new commodity markets […] were never in doubt” (Mintz, 157). It is in this capitalistic society that the chocolate makers make decisions about the importance of inexpensive labor and maintaining their competitive edge. And although the motivations of the Cote d’Ivoire government may not be the same as that of the colonizers, the poor labor practices, corruption, politics and poverty have led the country into modern day slavery.

A young boy with a machete in a small town in the Ivory Coast

The responsibility doesn’t fall only on the government; the chocolate conglomerates and the consumers share a large amount of the blame.  In the early 20th century when the wave of illegal slavery practices were uncovered on Portugal’s colonies, it caused a public outcry. Consumers belittled Cadbury as “You pious Frauds” and “You Anointed Hypocrites” (Higgs, 153). Despite the importance of public image, these companies were so intertwined with capitalism that losing out on cheap labor and hence their competitive edge would be disastrous. When similar practices were uncovered in the 21st century, all major chocolate conglomerates had fallen to the same inept practices and promise saying:

they could not control events and farmers in foreign countries; that they were commercial firms, not police or governments; that it was not their responsibility to protect foreign workers; that if they did stop using slave-made goods, other firms would continue to do so; and that their job was to ensure the best product at the cheapest price and that meant using the least expensive raw materials. (“Anti Slavery International”, 56)

Almost a century apart, the reasoning for continued slavery seems surprisingly similar. This mindset has allowed the chocolate enterprises to become successful corporations and feed into a system, which wholly caters to its shareholders and consumers and has the power to utterly exploit its producers. Thus, slavery especially in the form of child labor, clearly in violation of international law, continues to feed and taint the chocolate industry.

A boy drying cacao beans in a small village in Cote d’Ivoire

Slavery in the 21st century is an outrageous concept and the discovery of slavery practices in Cote d’Ivoire sent shock waves throughout the world and many people spoke out. As a result Fair trade, International Cocoa Initiative, and the Cocoa protocol were formed (“Anti Slavery International”). Fair trade practices established a connection between retail, consumers and cacao. International Cocoa Initiative aimed to monitor and curb the worst forms of child labor and the Cocoa Protocol was established for setting an international framework to end child labor. However, in 2012 it was found that “the industry’s efforts to stop child labor are “uneven” and “incomplete” and that 97% of Ivory Coast farmers had not been reached” (McKenzie and Swails). These were historical feats and their establishments even though improved the lives of the slaves, have done little to stop slavery itself.

Since the onset of slavery in cacao plantations in early 20th century to recent times, our efforts in stopping these malpractices have been ineffective. Poor and corrupt governments, companies who care only about their bottom line, and unsuccessful treaties have only exasperated the situation. Unless laws are improved and pressure is consistently applied on an international level to improve the situation and ban the labor practices, these children will continue to live miserable lives. Third party organizations can also help alleviate the problem through negotiations and accurate reporting on progress. Only then can we together resolve this problem and provide hope to the many young children in Cote d’Ivoire.


1.“Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas. childlaborcocoa. Tulane University. July 2015. Web. March 2016 <;

2.Cote d’Ivoire. Frontier country report.” dbsearch. Deutsche Bank Research. August 2014. Web. March 2016. <’Ivoire.pdf>

3. “Anti-Slavery International. The Cocoa Industry in West Africa: A History of Exploitation.” antislavery. 2004. Web. March 2016 <>

4. McKenzie, David, and Brent Swails. “Child Slavery and Chocolate: All Too Easy to Find.” The CNN Freedom Project Ending Modern Day Slavery. CNN, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <>.

5. Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio UP, 2012. Print.

6. Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

7. Rosenthal, David. Digital Image. Thedailybeast. Web. March 2016 <>

8. Digital Image. Fortune. Web. March 2016 <>

9. Digital Image. UpstreamJournal. Web. March 2016 <;

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