Ridding the World of Forced Labor

Theobroma cacao, otherwise known as the cacao tree, lies at the source from which all chocolate is produced. First used in South America by the Mayans and the Aztecs, cacao would be later introduced to Spain in 1528 and spread throughout the rest of Europe soon afterwards. For consumers, chocolate provided an almost magical experience, a treat that made life just a little but sweeter. But for those who were actually involved in the cultivation of cacao, the basis of chocolate, life was anything but sweet.

Large scale production of cacao began in the 1880s on Portugese plantations on the islands of São Tomé and Principe.  Between 1888 and 1908 it is calculated that more than 67,000 African mainlanders were sent to these two islands to work manual labor (Ant-Slavery 5). Along with the leadership of William Cadbury, the Fry’s, Rowntrees, and Stollwerk chocolate firm of Cologne teamed up to send Dr. Joseph Burtt to investigate the working conditions present on the islands and in Angola. The results of his studies were disgusting. Burtt came back with findings that the Angolan people were taken to the island “against their will, and often under conditions of great cruelty” (Anti-Slavery 5).

In the 1890s, the Duala elite set up cocoa plantations in Cameroon, ones that would become largely dependent upon slave labor as well as wage labor. It was believed that slaves on these plantations were afforded greater opportunities, than those on German plantations, with the granting of the ability to cultivate their own plots. After the French takeover of Cameroon, the Duala plantations soon became unprofitable due to the large lack of labor needed to uphold profitable production.

The problem with cacao production is that cacao cultivation is a very time and skill required job. The way the pods grown on the tree makes the removal of the pods extremely difficult. When removing the pods from the tree, one must be very careful not to damage neither the trunk nor the pods. Machines that have been designed to do such a job have failed, solidifying the need for human labor in this work.

A child laborer carefully cuts the cacao pod from the trunk of the cacao tree without damaging the integrity of the pod.

In order to keep costs down in the production of cacao, sharecroppers have turned to child labor. These children are sold by their parents to work the fields in the hopes that their children will return with profits to help out their family. Surveying has shown that many of these parents make this decision without the assumption that anything of great danger could happen to them. Unfortunately, many of these children never return with any of the things they had hoped for. They are unschooled and often brutally abused. Few will return with any earnings for their illegal work. The child labor cycle seems to be motored by those few children who come back with significant earnings, giving hope to the rest of the families in the villages they come back to.

Children forced to work for sharecroppers are often placed beneath abusive conditions, receiving no education during their time on the plantation.

Other forms of labor have also found their ways into the cacao business. These include paid laborers, enslaved laborers, and non-enslaved but exploited laborers. Regardless, most of these people live in abusive working conditions.

In 2001, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, conducted research in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria on the potential existence of human trafficking and child labor. The surveys commissioned reported that 284,000 child laborers work in dangerous working conditions. Surveys also showed possible evidence of around 2,500 child workers that have been trafficked to Côte d’Ivore and Nigeria to cultivate cacao (Anti-Slavery 58).

In efforts to eliminate child labor or any other forced labor from being used as a means of production, The Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) was set up in 1997. Those belonging to this organization are permitted to use their label on products “where the ingredients, such as cocoa, are purchased either directly from producers registered with the FLO or from importers registered with FLO” (Anti-Slavery 41). The fairtrade standards for FLO include no abuse child labor, no other forms of forced labor, and labor must not inhibit one’s ability to acquire schooling. This system is upheld locally by members to ensure that these standards are being followed, making it incredibly difficult for any prevalence of slavery to exist. Most of West Africa has become covered by the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana, which has membership of 35,000 farmers in 937 different societies (Anti-Slavery 42).

Further efforts to rid the cacao production business of slavery and human trafficking include the Initial Plan of Action against Trafficking Persons and the “First specialized Meeting on Child Trafficking and Exploitation in West and Central Africa” in 2001 (Anti-Slavery 62). These steps have focused an effort towards criminalizing human trafficking and using legislation to tackle the problem, Trafficking would be further tackled through the creation of an 8 country body to investigate child trafficking and provide information on the issue (Anti-Slavery 63).

Many big name chocolate makers have insisted that they have no responsibility in the means of labor of cacao cultivators. However, facing public pressure, the chocolate industry issued a four-year plan to eliminate child slavery in cacao production (Robbins). The agreement was signed by by the CMA and the World

Hershey’s is one of the major corporations to make strides to eliminate child trafficking.

Cocoa Foundation along with major chocolate producers/processors like Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, Blommer Chocolate, and Guittard Chocolate.

From a consumer standpoint, we can all make a difference. Look for foods stamped to indicate its part of the fairtrade movement. Fairtrade foods guarantee fair pricing, long-term trade relationships, living wages and no child labor, along with a list of other requirements. Informing oneself with the current issue and taking a stand to fight for what is right and for the betterment of the lives of innocent people starts with the individual.



Works Cited

Ribbons, John. “The Good the Bad and the Savory.” Global Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2016

“The Cocoa Industry in West Africa.” Anti-Slavery International. 10 Mar. 2016


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