Child Labor: The Ingredient Not Listed on Your Chocolate Bar

The actual practice of child labor existed well before the term “child labor” existed, and as amazing as this fact might seem to the typical chocolate consumer, child labor still exists in a widespread capacity, especially in developing countries 1. Unfortunately (and I am not just saying this because I am a chocolate lover), the harvesting of cacao is an industry where child labor is extensively utilized, and the reality is that the chocolate industry tragically employs children a lot more than most people in the western world would like to believe 2,3. It is estimated that at least 2 million children work in the cacao industry in the West African countries of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire 2,3. In this essay, I am going to explore the harsh reality which exists around chocolate production involving the atrocious practice of child labor, and at the very end, I am going to propose what I believe is the solution to righting a very, very wrong situation.


It would be a fair question for someone to ask why child labor is such a widespread problem in chocolate production 2,3. The answer to this question involves a number of contributing factors, however the financial aspect of cacao harvesting and production is one component which has a significant and undeniable influence 2,3. Those who harvest and process cacao are paid approximately 3-6% of the retail price of a chocolate bar 4,5. Considering the intense work and skill needed to engage in this endeavor, this amount of compensation seems unacceptably low, and thus can qualify to be labeled exploitative 2,3,6. To break things down to a per-person level, the average cacao farmer makes roughly $2 dollars per day for engaging in the exhausting and physically challenging work which involves cacao 7. Perhaps someone could justify these meager wages if the product was not in demand, however to provide some perspective, the chocolate industry generates an estimated 110 billion dollars a year, and 70% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa 4,5. This estimated total gross amount generated by the chocolate industry is more than the GNP (Gross National Product) of both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire combined 8,9. According to the most-recent World Bank information, Ghana’s GDP was $38.62 billion in 2014, and Cote d’Ivoire’s GDP was $34.25 billion in 2014 8,9. These amounts equal a combined $72.87 billion, which is well below the $110 billion grossed in total by the entire chocolate industry 4,8,9. Hence, the chocolate industry produces revenue which far and away exceeds the combined GDP of two of the biggest cacao producing nations in the world 4,8,9. This fact alone indicts that there is an imbalance in the distribution of revenue when it comes to the chocolate industry, and with the demand for chocolate expected to continue to rise during the years to come, this expansive economic separation between the large chocolate companies, and the cacao workers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire is anticipated to become even more outrageous in the future 4,8,9. To complicate this problem further, chocolate prices are expected to increase in the years to come because of that projected increased demand 10. Thus, this situation is probably going to require additional labor – which has the potential to make the child labor situation even worse – and the biggest single impact of higher prices could very well be higher profits for large chocolate companies – as opposed to higher wages for cacao workers. I will explain below how such a scenario is currently on-track to play itself out in the future.

Chocolate Sales Projection Chart

It is has been projected that chocolate demand will “increase by 5 million tons by 2020” 10. The law of supply and demand dictates that such a product demand increase will necessitate a labor increase, unless, of course, some mechanical advancement either allows for no need for additional labor or reduces the need for the current amount of labor. Barring some technological advancement such as this, the child labor problem could potentially only get worse, and this could be what the future will actually look like. This possible outcome is because cacao harvesting in particular is a skill which requires human beings to physically do 6. No machine has been invented as of yet to perform this task 6. Hence, more child labor will be required, unless adult labor is supplied via some other means, and this would most likely have to be adult labor which is as cheap as or cheaper than what is currently utilized. However, because of the geographical restrictions involved in growing cacao, more adult laborers may not be readily available locally. If they are not available nearby, then this means that labor either has to be imported or child labor needs to be further utilized. There is, also, a third possibility of raising wages with the hope that more adult workers will be attracted and willing to give up another profession in order to farm and produce cacao. The challenge here is that the large chocolate companies are probably not going to want to pay more for anything, thus this is not an attractive proposition from their point of view. Hence, with very few other favorable options, a projected increase in the need for labor, and the precedent already in place regarding child labor being widely utilized in the cacao industry, the prospects for child labor potentially have a bleak future. The reality is that the only action which might motivate large chocolate companies to implement real progressive change is an attack of their profit margins, which might truly be the only thing to cause those companies to make a genuine effort to responsibly replace child labor with adult labor.

Chocolate Demand Price Graphic

A true change for the better would require large chocolate companies confronting the problem of cacao workers getting paid so little for the hard work which they do, because this tremendous financial disparity is one factor in the cacao chain which perpetuates a cycle of both poverty and child labor, and I will explain why 6. The adults do not get paid enough in the cacao industry, thus the children need to work in order to supply enough capital for the household to meet its needs. I propose that if compensation was raised for the average cacao farmer, then the need for child labor would be reduce greatly, because it would bridge the gap between what is financially required to provide for a household and what an adult cacao worker makes. However, this would not address the worldwide demand for cacao, which will still minimally require the same amount of labor used today, and probably more labor in the future, as I have previously addresses 10. Therefore, it behooves the large chocolate manufacturers to NOT eliminate child labor from a labor demand standpoint. Obviously, this is not a fact which chocolate companies want brought to light, so some of these companies present a public face of being opposed to child labor. The reality is that there is more motivation for chocolate companies to not change how they do business versus really attempting to take steps to reduce the child labor which they employ to harvest and process cacao. In order to bury this horrible truth, it has been reported that the press has been kept at bay regarding investigating this disturbing trend 7. It has even been speculated that a reporter named Guy-Andre Kieffer was kidnapped and killed in 2004, because he was allegedly attempting to expose government corruption, some of it potentially connected to child labor in Cote d’Ivoire 7. If this is indeed all true, then nothing is going to change regarding child labor in West Africa unless the truth is brought to light, and the public consequently rails against the large chocolate companies’ practices by protesting such practices with their purchasing dollars. Until that happens, the people of West Africa will be exploited for the sake of providing people in other parts of the world inexpensive chocolate to eat. Justice will only prevail once people who are in a position to demand it actually do.

Chocolate World Production Timeline.png

One other solution is that customers pay more for chocolate, however even if this does happen (and considering that the demand for chocolate is expected to increase over the next few years to the point where this is assumed to be inevitable), then it might be the large chocolate corporations which benefit from this increase the most 10. The reason for this is, of course, that most companies are in business to make as much profit as possible, hence unless those large chocolate companies are absolutely forced to make less profit, then they will not make less profit. It is bottom line which is the great corporate motivator. The pressure must be put on that bottom line in order for the large chocolate companies to make a change in the manner in which they buy cacao. If those companies demanded that child labor not be utilized in the harvesting and processing of cacao and refused to buy from farms which employ child labor. Then, these same companies back this commitment up by dedicating themselves to investigating the farms which they purchase cacao from in order to ensure that child labor is not used, then and only then will child labor be impacted in a meaningful and positive way in the cacao industry.

Fair Trade Symbols.jpg

A counterargument to this direct grassroots approach to the large chocolate companies could be that fair trade certification services could do quite a bit of the work which is needed to be done to improve the background of most of the chocolate which is consumed. However, I contend that fair trade chocolate is in reality limited in both its availability and its reach 11,12. Also, there is confusion regarding what “fair trade” really means, depending on who is defining it 10,11. In addition to that, there are concerns regarding how misleading these labels might be, because there is evidence that some of the “loopholes” with these certifications may allow a certain amount of child labor during production 10,11. Thus, the supposed purpose of such labels may, in some cases, be merely a marketing ploy 10,11. Also, there are other reasons why one may not expect fair trade certification to have a significant impact. The large chocolate companies are just too big and uncooperative. It would be one thing if the large chocolate companies embraced some sort of fair trade certification, but none of them embrace any sort of fair trade certification or fair trade regulation on any widespread level. This type of certification is kept very niche, and even then it can appear to be a bit elusive. Thus, the overwhelming majority of “fair trade” chocolate which is purchased could very well involve child labor in some capacity. I will not spend too much time regarding what these certification services are individually specifically trying to do (as in their particular “guidelines”), because the large chocolate companies have not been motivated enough to embrace any form of guidelines such as these in any significant way. These guidelines simply have not accumulated the necessary influence to be adopted on a large scale, and it does not look as though that situation will change anytime soon.

Chocolate Child Worker

Another potential influence on the large chocolate companies is legislation. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed into law in September 2001, and it was meant to deal with the problems of child slavery and child labor pertaining to cacao 13. Some progress was made, however years later, quite a bit of the original objectives have still not been met, and deadlines were pushed back and left unfulfilled 13. The outcome has not been ideal 13. Perhaps, it is the powerful lobbyist of the large chocolate companies who have influenced politicians to “relax” the expectations of the Harkin-Engel Protocol 13 . Putting lawful regulation aside, at times, large chocolate companies have individually committed to supposedly addressing and improving the child labor situation 14,15. Over the last two years, two manufacturers, Nestle and Hershey, have made a point to publicly and financially combat child labor 14,15. However, if one takes a closer look at these proposals, they appear to fall far short of what commitment is needed to truly challenge and eliminate child labor, thus they could be dismissed as marketing strategies used to better their reputation 14,15. I propose, instead, that the motivation for the large chocolate companies to remove child labor from their process must come from somewhere else, some place that currently wields the power to force the large chocolate companies to literally change tomorrow – if this power was seized upon by the entity controlling it. That entity is you, me, and everyone who buys chocolate, because that is where the true power to force change lies.

Chocolate Children Workers

I advance that the solution to the problem of child labor in the cacao industry is to make the primary face of chocolate, meaning the large chocolate companies, accountable for how chocolate is produced from the very beginning of the process. Nearly all corporations work hard to cultivate and maintain a good reputation. When a strong force works to undermine that positive reputation, then the motivation has been supplied to encourage those companies to make changes which could counteract the damage that those strong forces are inflicting against that company’s reputation. If the American public was aware that the chocolate that they are eating may very well have been created with the help of child labor, then outrage may be elicited by a considerable number of chocolate buyers. Couple that with public exposure of the fact that one important factor which may be a significant contributor to this child labor problem is that the people involved in the harvesting and possessing of cacao receive so little pay for their work, and thus, in order for the household to be provided for, the family’s children have to work 7. Once the public is armed with this information, Americans (and others throughout the world) would hopefully be motivated to demand changes from the large chocolate companies to go and conduct business differently in order to eliminate this horrible cycle involving poverty and child labor which were all created in the name of supplying chocolate to the world 7. I firmly believe if these truths were exposed to the chocolate buying public, then action would be taken by that public to stop these atrocities from continuing to occur, and the bitterest part of the chocolate industry would cease to exist.

Works cited

  1. “Unite For Sight.” Child Labor and Child Abuse in Developing Countries. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  2. “Human Rights and Child Labour.” Make Chocolate Fair! 2013. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  3. “Collaboration, the Key to Ending Cacao’s Child Labor.” Devex International Development. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  4. “Chocolate Is a Bittersweet Way of Life in Ghana – NBC News.” NBC News. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  5. Torre, Inez. “Cacao-nomics Explained: Unwrapping the Chocolate Industry.”CNN. Cable News Network, 2014. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  6. “These 5 Crops Are Still Hand-Harvested, And It’s Hard Work.” NPR. NPR. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  7. “Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  8. “Ghana.” Data. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  9. “Côte D’Ivoire Home.” Côte D’Ivoire Home. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  10. Golgowski, Nina. “Could Appetite for Chocolate Exceed World Supply? Consumption Expected to Increase by 5 MILLION Tons by 2020.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 2012. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  11. “Fair Trade Chocolate: A Myth?” Gentle World RSS. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  12. “NGO Questions Fair Trade USA Chocolate Labeling ‘hoax'” Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  13. “The Human Cost of Chocolate.” The CNN Freedom Project Ending ModernDay Slavery RSS. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  14. “Nestle Pledges Action on Ivorian Cacao Child Labor.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 2012. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.
  15. “Hershey Pledges $10 Million to Improve West African Cacao Farming, Fight Child Labor.” The CNN Freedom Project Ending ModernDay Slavery RSS. Web. 10 May 2016. <;.

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