The Dark Side of Chocolate: How We can Help Remedy the Troubling Relationship Between Chocolate and Slavery

We see chocolate as a delicious, wonderful treat but may rarely consider the dark side behind the beautifully wrapped packages at the store. Before these indulgent packages arrive at our local grocery stores, their contents travel a dark path crossed with modern slavery, child labor and human trafficking. The Declaration of Human Rights, created and adopted after the horrors of World War II, states that “no one should be held in slavery or servitude, slavery in all of its forms should be eliminated.” Many nations outlawed the practice a century earlier. Slavery has has been widely decried as a human rights violation for hundreds of years, yet it still persists in many forms today. One such form is the slave labor and child labor in West Africa that props up the chocolate industry today. In the decades since chocolate’s disturbing sourcing has been revealed, many large chocolate producers have created initiatives that seek to reassure the consumer but that do little to address the root causes of child and slave labor or provide real incentives for farmers to avoid the practice. These initiatives are at best insubstantial or misleading and at worst deliberate marketing ploys intended to obscure true conditions and keep sales and profits high. Given the prevalence of slave labor and child labor in chocolate, and the illusion of action created by chocolate companies, what can consumers do to make socially responsible choices without giving up their favorite treats?

Slavery and chocolate have a long history. In 1901 the Quaker owned Cadbury chocolate company discovered reports that much of their cocoa, sourced from the Portuguese Islands of Principe and Sao Tome, may have been produced using slave labor. Given the Quaker philosophy of nonviolence and Cadbury’s dedication to creating quality working conditions for employees, this report conflicted with Cadbury’s identity. William Cadbury decided to investigate and spent the next decade attempting to remedy the situation. Records show that Cadbury petitioned the Portuguese government to reform their labor practices and legal enforcement, but to no avail. Cadbury was under public pressure to change their cocoa sourcing, although there did not seem to be a major impact on their sales. Eventually, in 1909, Cadbury and two other chocolate companies decided to boycott the islands until labor practices were reformed– this took until 1917 (Pinder).

Slavery and chocolate then disappeared from the public eye until the end of the century. In 1998, new reports of slave labor and child labor emerged from the Ivory Coast in Western Africa. The Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer of cocoa, yet has a very low development level. A local Ivory Coast newspaper released an expose on the “practice of importing and indenturing Malian boys for fieldwork on Ivorian plantations” (Shrang & Ewing). The United States Department of State investigated and came up with early estimates of 15,000 Malian children working on cocoa and coffee plantations. The child workers were sold to plantation owners for $140 (Shrang & Ewing).

In 2000, the BBC brought the issue of child slavery to the global consciousness with a documentary that reported hundreds of thousands of children from Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo were being sold to Ivory Coast plantations. The BBC found evidence of slavery on up to 90% of cocoa farms. They also revealed inhumane working conditions including work weeks of up to 100 hours for children as young as six and frequent abuse. The United States Department of State also confirmed these results in 2001, stating that “children regularly are trafficked into the country from neighbouring countries and sold into forced labour” (USDOS 2001). After the release of the documentary, the Ivorian government released a statement that the international cocoa industry kept prices too low for Ivorian farmers to have a decent standard of living, which led to the use of slavery (Percival). While this statement was an attempt to divert responsibility, it is also true. The value of cocoa has dropped since the 1980’s, and today about 70% of a chocolate bar’s value goes to manufacturers because the most expensive aspects are marketing, research and development– not growing raw materials (Percival).

The media spotlight also forced chocolate companies to examine the labor practices of their cocoa sources and to take responsibility for their connections to child and slave labor, although initially companies attempted to avoid direct responsibility:

We have been visiting the Ivory Coast for decades and working closely with many cocoa farmers. In all that time, we have simply not come across such practices. We are confident that, while illegal practices may exist, this is on a very limited scale indeed and confined to certain areas (John Newman, Director of the British Biscuit, Cake, Confectionery, and Chocolate Alliance, June 2001).

[N]o one, repeat no one, had ever heard of this. Your instinct is that Hershey should have known. But the fact is we didn’t know (Robert M. Reese, Senior Vice President of Hershey Foods, June 2001).

According to Schrange & Ewing, “no company was able to guarantee that its cocoa supply chain was child labour-free, since most companies sourced at least some cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire.”

In 2001 the United States came close to creating legislation that would hold chocolate companies accountable. Trade law already outlawed import of slave labor products. The United States considered adding cocoa from the Ivory Coast to a list of banned goods. A bill was introduced in Congress that would have required a “no child slave labor’ label on all cocoa products. However, the United States Chocolate Manufacturers pushed back. Before the vote, they created an initiative to reduce child labor in cocoa plantations. They also attempted to divert blame and responsibility onto governments. The USCM released this statement:  

As an industry, we strongly condemn abusive labour practices, and our goal is to be part of the worldwide effort to solve this problem . . . Given the importance of cocoa farming to the well-being of the people of the Ivory Coast and throughout the region, we believe it is critical to continue to support the vast majority of family farms there by doing everything possible to improve labour conditions (Chocolate Manufacturers Association, press release, 22 June 2001).

They also stated that “a ‘slave free’ label would hurt the people it is intended to help because it could lead to a boycott of Ivorian cocoa” (Schrange & Ewing). The chocolate industry then hired former senator Bob Dole to lobby against the passage of the law (Campbell & Athreya).

Chocolate company lobbying was successful. Instead of passing a labeling law, Congress passed the Harkin Engel Protocol, which is a “ protocol for the growing and processing of cocoa beans and their derivative products in a manner that complies with ILO Convention 182 (created by the General Conference of the International Labor Organization) concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor” on West African farms. The protocol was voluntary, which meant that chocolate companies could toute their participation as a way to revamp their public image and keep sales high. The protocol was signed by eight major chocolate companies and listed six steps to end just the “worst forms” of child labor. Here are summarized versions of the six steps:


  • 1. Public statement of the need for and terms of an action plan
  • 2. Formation of multi-sectoral advisory groups
  • 3. Signed joint statement on child labor to be witnessed at the ILO
  • 4. Memorandum of cooperation
  • 5. Establish a joint foundation
  • 6. Building toward credible standards


So how successful have these steps been in creating accountability and transparency? According to the International Labor Rights Forum, the protocol has been unsuccessful because “none of the activities undertaken under the auspices of the ‘protocol’ have attempted to monitor or improve labor conditions within the cocoa supply of any chocolate company” (Campbell & Athreya). Essentially, the Harkin Engel Protocol was a lot of talk and press but little transformative action. By lobbying against the label law and promoting this voluntary program, chocolate companies were able to avoid being accountable to anyone aside from their consumers– and it is more difficult for consumers to discover the truth behind carefully marketed initiatives.

In 2012, the CNN Freedom Project investigated child labor in the Ivory Coast to see if the Harkin Engel Protocol had produced any transformation in cocoa labor. Rabola Kagohi, director of the International Cocoa Initiative (run by the chocolate industry) stated that “the situation has improved exponentially.” However, none of the farmers CNN reporters spoke to had contact with the International Cocoa Initiative, and a Tulane University study found that 97% of the Ivory Coast’s farmers had not been reached in the “uneven” endeavor (MacKenzie & Swails).

CNN found and spoke with many people on cocoa plantations. This video shows the perspective of a child living and working in slavery on a plantation:

A Child’s Slave Perspective

Despite the lack of accountability provided by the protocol, news reports and documentaries like “The Dark Side of Chocolate” continue to to stir up public pressure on chocolate companies to create change. “The Dark Side of Chocolate” is one recent example. Check out the trailer here:

The Dark Side of Chocolate

Any major improvements in tracking source chains and verifying fair labor practices have come from individual company initiatives and government initiatives, not from the Harkin Engel Protocol. In 2012 the Ivorian government set a minimum price for raw cocoa. While still quite low, the set price allows farmers predictability so they can plan ahead (Percival). Some individual companies have also begun a variety of initiatives, which often appear to be in direct response to consumer pressure. While these initiatives may create minor improvements, they do not fully address the labor issues down the whole supply chain and are clearly intended to comfort consumers instead of creating lasting change.  Let’s take a closer look.

In 2010 Hershey released a “Corporate Social Responsibility Report.” This report was released in the same year Hershey had a 54% jump in profits due to “supply chain efficiencies” (Robbins). John Robbins of the Huffington Post compared this “social responsibility report” to the phenomenon of “greenwashing,” which means convincing the public that a product is more environmentally friendly than it is. Robbins calls the report a “PR effort to mislead the public into thinking [their] policies and products are socially responsible, when in fact they are not.”

The same week the international human rights organization Global Exchange released a counter-report on Hershey’s practices, intended to highlight the deception. They pointed out that despite ten years of promises (since the passing of the Harkin Engel Protocol) conditions in West African cocoa farms remain in violation, while chocolate company profits continue to rise. The report gives credit to small chocolate companies that truly source directly from farmers to ensure fair wages and fair labor as well as some larger companies that make an effort to buy beans that have been independently verified as fair trade. Hershey, they claim, is not one of these companies. They write “Hershey has no policies in place to purchase cocoa that has been produced without the use of labor exploitation, and the company has consistently refused to provide public information about its cocoa sources” (Time to Raise the Bar). They point out that as Hershey’s profits rise none of the wealth is passed to farmers, who continue to live in poverty and are thus driven to use child and slave labor. Hershey also does not reveal exactly how the money they have invested in West Africa has actually reduced child labor, slave labor or human trafficking (Time to Raise the Bar).

Let’s move to another case study. Increasing public pressure led Nestle to request an audit from the Fair Labor Association in 2012. After mapping the cocoa supply chain into remote areas they found Nestle guilty of ignoring its own supplier code around child and slave labor. Nestle was successfully requiring the multi-national companies that served as their primary suppliers to follow the code. However, they did not communicate with or enforce code with others earlier in the supply chain. In addition to finding evidence of child labor and enslavement of both children and adults, they found dangerous working conditions such as long hours and injuries from machetes (Hawksley). This report increased accountability for Nestle and led to a renewed plan. On Nestle’s website, they reiterate that it is impossible to be sure that no child or slave labor is used in production but that they are determined to end the practices where they can. In 2015, Nestle produced the following infographic neatly explaining the their anti-child labor action steps:


So how can we avoid giving our money to companies that support child labor and slave labor? This question is complicated by a few challenges: it is very difficult for companies to be fully aware of the conditions in every component of their supply chain and a total boycott of chocolate would drive the cocoa-dependent region further into poverty. In addition, we know that large companies obscure inhuman conditions and labor violations with attractive sounding initiatives and marketing campaigns to show off those initiatives. How should an ethical consumer navigate the chocolate industry?

One strategy is simply getting informed about which companies use child labor, but challenge in this endeavor is a lack of an industry standard for “certification” of fair trade chocolate. In order to have a clear standard, a certification system would need: a set of standards, a process for verifying if those standards are met; a certification mark, logo or seal; and, a system for auditing to make sure the mark, logo or seal is not being misused (by an independent body) (Campbell & Athreya). There are multiple private organizations that have created their own standards. Fair Trade USA has a lengthy list of approved chocolate companies. However, the rigor of their standards has been contested by the small fair trade chocolate company Equal Exchange, which writes on their website “Fair Trade USA has slowly but steadily chipped away at our principles and values, only recently taking the final steps in building their strategy. They have proceeded to leave the international Fair Trade System, lower standards, eliminate farmers from their governance model, and invite large-scale plantations into coffee and all other commodities” (Equal Exchange). An online platform called Slave Free Chocolate also keeps a list of chocolate companies that meet their own standards. Green America keeps a scorecard (see below) that gives a grade to various companies. You can see that while some popular companies like Mars and Hershey have made efforts to improve their chain source, other popular companies like Godiva have made no efforts. As you can see, there is conflict about what it means to truly be “fair trade.” However, despite the differences in standards rigor, a fair trade label will indicate dedication to avoiding child and slave labor practices.

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However, when a consumer relies on a label or list they are placing trust in the organization creating that label or list. For the conscious consumer who seeks to be truly confident in their ethical chocolate consumption, the best choice is researching individual companies. Here are a few ideas of what to look for. An association with a fair trade organization is a good place to start. Even better, look for a short supply chain. That means there are less steps between the farmer and the consumer (which means less opportunities for bad labor practices). Blogger Tsh Oxenrieder at The Art of Simple recommends looking for key phrases like “direct trade” and “bean to bar.” One example of a chocolate company which provides detailed information about how they ensure fair labor conditions is Equal Exchange. You can check out their practices here.

Eliminating child labor and slave labor in the cocoa industry is a daunting challenge. Poverty conditions, a lack of access to education, low drive or ability to enforce laws, conflict, corporate lobbyists and global economics all work against those who seek to remedy this problem. However, consumers can “vote with their money” by choosing companies that are actively engaged in fighting child and slave labor and that are dedicated to working directly with farmers to ensure they can earn a quality standard of living. We have the power to show large corporations like Hershey’s that a superficial commitment is not enough by using a language they understand– money. Because corporations are profit driven they will improve their practices if it is required to continue their growth. We need to send a message that if companies want to keep us as customers they must become competitors to other brands in not just in price and quality but also in ethics.

Work Cited

Campbell & Athreya. “Cocoa Protocol: Success or Failure?” International Labor Rights Forum. June

O’Keefe, Brian. “Was Your Easter Chocolate Made With Child Labor?” Fortune. 2016. Web.

Oxenrieder, Tsh. “Chocolate: The Industry’s Hidden Truth.” The Art of Simple. 2017. Web.

Percival, Matt. “Coco-nomics: Why Chocolate Really Doesn’t Grow on Trees.” CNN. 2015. Web.

Pinder, Hilary. “Satre’s Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics and the Ethics of Business.” George Fox

University. 2007.

“The Harkin-Engel Protocol.” Slave Free Chocolate. 2017. Web.

“Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report.” Global Exchange. 2010.

Robbins, John. “Is There Child Slavery in Your Chocolate?” Huffington Post. 2017. Web.



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