The Bitter Truth about Chocolate: A Long History of Forced Labor

The hands that consume chocolate sadly know very little about the hands, stricken by poverty and coercion, that tirelessly work to produce the coveted product (Contrasts: Things Kids Like). Today, over 70% of the world’s supply of cacao is produced in Africa, largely in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, two West African countries that depend heavily on child labor to meet the growing demands of the international chocolate industry (“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”). Of the 1,203,473 child laborers involved in the cocoa sector in Cote d’Ivoire, approximately 95.7% of those children were performing hazardous work involved in cocoa production (“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor-Côte d’Ivoire”). Similarly, this alarming proportion of child laborers engaged in risky labors for cocoa production was also reported in Ghana (“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor-Ghana”). While reports exposing the extent of child trafficking and labor in the chocolate industry shocked Western consumers, the reliance on forced labor is hardly a recent addition to the production of cocoa.

 “Labor rights issues in cocoa production are nothing new. They are tradition.” Professor Carla Martin, Harvard University

Over the past few centuries, forced labor in cocoa and sugar production has adapted to fulfill economic incentives as well as resist pressures of abolition. From the Encomienda system established by Spanish colonizers to the chattel slavery that manifested in the triangular trade, and now to the child labor that plagues cacao-producing regions, coerced labor has modified its form but has remained a major component of production. The systems of labor inequality that persist in cocoa and sugar production reflect the checkered history of slavery and elucidate the role of economic factors in perpetuating forced labor to drive the commodities to massive consumption.

Human Interventions in Cacao Production

Young boy struggling to transport cacao pods through the forest.

Understanding the nature of cacao helps to elucidate why human labor particularly was so essential to sustain its procurement and how forced labor systems developed to maximize the profit of this cash crop. The cultivation and retrieval of cacao itself is a delicate process, thereby necessitating the precision and tender care of human labor that cannot be easily replaced by a mechanical substitute.  A fragile plant, the cacao tree must be kept carefully unharmed during recovery of the cacao pods. This requires human labor to precisely and skillfully use a cutlass, knife, or long-handled tool to remove the cacao pods from the tree (Martin, Lecture 4). The pods are then transferred to a sack, totaling more than 100 pounds in weight that must be carried back (“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”). The photo above captures the difficulty of this task, among others that are also extremely laborious and dangerous and continue to be so for child slaves in West Africa. The careful and gentle treatment required in the initial steps of cacao production partly explains why despite immense mechanization of our industries, technological alternatives have not satisfied the need for labor in the stage of cultivation and crop retrieval.

The Encomienda System

While the characteristics of the cacao plant help explain the demand for human labor, economic factors better demonstrate why the labor systems implemented over the centuries were steeped in inequality and disparity. One of the first major labor systems imposed on indigenous people was the encomienda system introduced to the Americas in the sixteenth century by the Spanish. The Spanish were granted the right to exact tribute, whether in the form of gold or forced labor, from the indigenous people (“Encomienda system established”). This system was intended to Christianize and care for inhabitants but quickly morphed into a means of usurping indigenous land and exploiting indigenous people, as portrayed in the image below. The economic incentive underlying this system of forced labor was clear: the Spanish aimed to extract cacao coinage in order to maximize the profit of this lucrative commodity (Martin, Lecture 6). The indigenous people were not protected or paid, and worked in harsh conditions; even though they were not technically owned, they were required to produce cacao for the Spanish. Though the encomienda system eventually ended due to protest from clergy, it was quickly replaced by the repartimiento, another exploitative means of further wealth extraction (Martin, Lecture 6). This account serves to demonstrate how one form of forced labor merely transitioned into another abusive form in response to pressures of abolition; this theme of modification in the face of abolition is recurrent, leading to the persistence of forced labor. Therefore, the economic motive of resource extraction made the encomienda system an abusive burden for indigenous people.

The stark differences between the goals of the encomienda and the abusive, exploitative system that resulted.

The Triangular Trade

This early form of an economically incentivized labor system set the precedent for more egregious forms in the following decades. In the sixteenth century, chattel slavery emerged as one of the largest systems of forced labor, as evidenced by the Triangular Trade. As the demand for sugar, cocoa, cotton, and other products began to escalate, the need for human labor also drastically increased. The triangular trade, a trading system involving Britain, West Africa, and the Americas, was implemented to accommodate the growing demand for labor. By the nineteenth century, nearly 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the New World as “chattel” (Martin, Lecture 6). Chattel slaves refers humans that are treated as personal property that can be owned and sold as a commodity. Interestingly, African slaves were “false commodities” rather than actual commodities (Mintz 1986). In the complex triangular exchange, slaves were being traded for goods but they themselves were not objects, despite being treated as such. These slaves suffered a very long and harsh voyage, a significant proportion of them dying, and endured many more hardships upon arrival. While a common misconception holds that slaves were doing unskilled, menial tasks, they were actually involved in many labor intensive responsibilities that severely diminished their quality of life (Martin, Lecture 6).

The Triangular Trade highlights the exchange of commodities between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Much like the encomienda system, this system of slavery was fueled by economic considerations. Firstly, the exchange was designed to maximize wealth and prospects for the colonizers; secondly, the origin of Negro slavery can be traced back to the economic decision to capitalize off the cheapest form of labor, rather than back to any racial explanation (Martin, Lecture 6). This form of forced labor was also met with substantial opposition, slowly leading to abolition by the late nineteenth century. Abolition, however, did not eliminate all forms of forced labor. The permissive attitudes towards labor inequality bred throughout centuries of slavery has led to the exploitation of other vulnerable populations by industry giants.

Addressing Practices of Child Labor in the Twenty-first Century

Tracing the incentives and nature of major systems of coerced labor demonstrates how in response to pressures of opposition and abolition, forms of forced slavery transitioned into a form that exploited a different susceptible population. Today, as we grapple with the challenges of child trafficking and labor within the chocolate industry, it is important to similarly examine the economic precursors that contributed to this problem. While lack of education and enforcement contribute to the child labor problem, a significant factor is an economic driver, as was the case in many other previous forms of forced labor. The immense poverty experienced by cacao-growing farmers prevents them from being able to manage their business or pay their adult employees, they are forced to recruit their children rather than educating them (“International Labor Rights Forum”). Addressing this problem requires counteracting the consequences of poverty with measures that economically empower these communities. As consumers, it is our responsibility  to expect fair treatment of workers and to demand accountability from the major players in the chocolate industry.

Therefore, examining the role of economic incentives in driving different forced labor forms in the past has informed us about why these coercive systems persist, and how economic considerations continue to hinder complete abolition of forms of inequality in labor.

Works Cited

“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry | Food Empowerment Project. Food Empowerment Project, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

“Encomienda system established.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Côte d’Ivoire.” United States Department of Labor. United States Department of Labor, 07 Dec. 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Ghana.” United States Department of Labor. United States Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

“International Labor Rights Forum.” Cocoa | International Labor Rights Forum. International Labor Rights Forum, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 4: Sugar and cacao.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 8 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 8 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1986.

Images and Video Links

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017. <;.

Ph Balanced Films. “Contrasts: Things Kids Like.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube,27 March 2013. Web. 8 March 2017. <;.



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