Guilty Pleasure: The Dark Side of the Chocolate Supply Chain in West Africa

If you were to stop a few strangers on the street and ask them to name their guilty pleasure you probably wouldn’t be surprised if they all answered chocolate.  The pleasure that chocolate brings to many is undeniable;  French doctor Hervé Robert confirmed that chocolate contains caffeine, theobromine, serotonin and phenylalanine, all of which are known to have mood-enhancing, and possibly aphrodisiac, effects (Coe & Coe, 2013).  But to focus on these health benefits alone is to overlook a darker side of chocolate.  The history of chocolate includes centuries of controversy, particularly in the supply chain and particularly on the African continent. One of the most salient scandals that has continued to plague chocolate production for hundreds of years is the involvement of child labor in the cultivation of cacao in West Africa.  Forced and unpaid labor has long plagued the chocolate industry and today  controversy in the supply chain continues as around 300,000 children in West Africa work on cacao farms (Berlan, 2013).  Fortunately public awareness of this issue is continuing to grow and some present-day chocolate companies have incorporated a zero tolerance policy towards conditions of slavery and child labor involved in their sourcing of cacao.  Nevertheless, recognizing the sobering reality of how many modern brands of chocolate are manufactured with forced labor adds a new dimension to the concept of chocolate as a guilty pleasure.

The use of forced labor is believed to exist in many parts of Africa today.  However, the use of forced labor in cocoa production is hardly novel. The involvement of involuntary laborers working in the cacao industry is documented in many regions worldwide including Mesoamerica, South America, Africa and the Caribbean from as early as the 1650s and into the 21st century (Clarence-Smith, 2000).  In the 20th century, the use of forced labor was uncovered on the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) off of the West Coast of Africa and in Cameroon, on German plantations (Berlan, 2013).  According to Anti-Slavery International (2004), the use of slaves from Angola was common on Portuguese plantations on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe from the 1880s and continued until 1962. 

Interestingly, some chocolate manufacturers who opposed the use of forced labor in certain cocoa-producing nations seem to have played a role in initiating a custom of child labor elsewhere.  For example, in 1908, William Cadbury switched his supplier from Sao Tome and Principe to Ghana, known then as the Gold Coast, which provided better labor conditions for its workers.  The government there had a policy against slavery and slave trading and the cocoa crop was grown by smallholders rather than plantations, making its production less contentious. However, as demand for chocolate increased farmers relied on using their family labor, including the use of children as unpaid laborers (Berlan, 2013).  Today, the custom continues.  The widespread use of children in cultivation of cacao is sometimes harmless and non-exploitative.  At other times, however, children are exposed to hazardous activities, including handling of toxic chemical pesticides and use of dangerous equipment, as well as child-trafficking (Coe & Coe, 2013)

(A child uses a machete to open a cocoa pod in eastern Ivory Coast) (Lowy, 2016)

Today, child labor in the cacao industry exists in a variety of locations and in a variety of forms throughout the African continent.  Just exactly what constitutes child labor in Africa is confounding to many on both sides of the issue.  The International Labor Organization, or ILO, defined the worst forms of child labor as including slavery and hazardous work including “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of the child”.  Furthermore, the definition includes children who are not in school, who are forced to withdraw from school because of long hours spent working or who have to combine school attendance with heavy work or long hours (Berlan, 2013). On the cocoa plantation, child labor often involves the use of dangerous machinery or equipment, handling heavy loads and exposure to toxic chemicals and/or pesticides.  The IFO refers to child laborers are those who are either under 15 and are economically active or who are between 15 and 17 and engage in dangerous work (Ryan, 2011). 

Estimates vary regarding the prevalence of child labor in the African cacao industry.  In 2000 a British documentary released by the BBC brought the topic to the public’s attention when it suggested that 90% of cacao farms in Cote D’Ivoire used slave labor, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of adults and approximately 15,000 children in Cote D’Ivoire alone were enslaved (Ryan, 2011).  This statement received an onslaught of backlash from the Ivorian cacao industry, however, which claimed that the estimate was inflated and a subsequent study by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture suggested that forced child labor was present on only 2% of cacao farms in the nation. 

Much of the confusion regarding the prevalence of child labor in West Africa comes from the unclear language which defines the matter.  For example, many in the cacao industry responded to the BBC’s allegations by claiming that child labor should not be conflated with child work.  They claimed,

“traditionally working on family farms and with family enterprises is seen as part of the process by which children are trained towards adulthood…Children’s involvement in the production of cocoa is an age old-tradition which constitutes a traditional way of imparting cocoa farming skills to them” (Berlan, 2013, p. 1090).

Accordingly, the IITA’s study found that child labor is highly prevalent in cocoa farms in West Africa; Results revealed that today 284,000 children work in hazardous conditions on cacao farms in West Africa and two-thirds of them are in Cote D’Ivoire, often working with toxic chemicals or with dangerous equipment.  However, most of these children worked under the supervision of their parents or relatives, disqualifying them from the category of child laborers since they were technically carrying out “chores”. 

Nevertheless the IITA also found that 12,000 children, the 2% in the study’s results, worked on farms where they had no relatives and 2,500 of them were suspected of being smuggled into Cote D’Ivoire for the purpose of toiling on the cacao farms, suggesting that these were the true child laborers by definition (Off, 2006).  Regardless of the nuances surrounding the definition of child labor, evidence suggests that children do labor throughout West Africa.  A study commissioned by the Ghanian government found that in 2005 and 2006 children aged 5 through 12 were indeed involved in tasks such as the spraying of insecticides, application of fertilizer, felling trees and burning brush (Berlan, 2013).  This revelation is particularly concerning because it is clearly in violation of the ILO’s definition of child labor and because Ghana produces the majority of the world’s cacao (O’Keefe, 2016).

Despite the confusion regarding what constitutes child labor in West Africa, the accounts of those who have lived through it provide evidence of the atrocities of the practice.  One report shared the stories of two Malian boys, aged 12 and 14, who were enticed by promises of paid apprenticeships to travel from Mali to Cote d’Ivoire.  After two years the boys were found sharing a windowless mud hut hoping to escape but held in check under threats of violence and eventual payment (which never came) (Manzo, 2005).  The former Malian consul general, Abdoulaye Macko, recounted similar atrocities including situations in which very young boys worked at gunpoint, were starved to near death, were locked in bunk houses at night and endured sores due to both carrying heavy bags of cocoa as well as from physical abuse.  According to Macko, often times Cote D’Ivoire police were aware of the injustices but were bribed to overlook them (Off, 2006).

(Part of an investigative CNN report from 2014 about child trafficking in Mali in the cacao industry.) (CNN, 2015)

Child labor exists in the West African cacao supply chain for reasons both economic and cultural in nature.  Smallholders, small farmers who farm commodities, generally do not own or control the land they work on.  As a result, their profits are small and they suffer when the price of their commodity plummets on the world market.  In order to stay competitive farmers must cut labor costs and they do so using two methods: Increasing their reliance on unpaid family labor in response to a fall in cocoa prices and increasing their reliance on slaves in order to lower costs in an increasingly competitive global market (Anti-Slavery International, 2004).  Families who send their children away in hopes of economic gain do so with the hopes that they are sending their kids off to work, to prosper, and will see them return shortly with earnings to bring back, rather than admitting that they had sold their children into slavery (Off, 2006).

It is easy to wonder whether one way to end forced child labor in the chocolate industry would be to pay more for the beans.  According to Off (2006) this would not work for several reasons.  First, the attorneys for the chocolate companies would claim that this was illegal price-fixing.  Likewise, the prime minister of Cote D’Ivoire claimed that if cocoa companies really wanted to end child labor they would have to pay up to ten times more for the cacao than they were already paying which would certainly eat into their profits if not bankrupt them.  Alternatively, banning the import of cacao until the injustices in the supply chain are rectified might seem like a humane and motivating response but when this happens the very workers who protesters hope to protect are further harmed.  For example, the Harkin Bill was introduced into Congress in 1992 and aimed to prohibit importing products made by children younger than 15.  When the garment industry of Bangladesh, which exported 60% of their goods to the US, found out about the bill they immediately fired child workers and most went on to live in even worse conditions due to their lack of income (Ryan, 2011). 

Cultural factors also influence the continued use of child labor in cacao in West Africa.  Parents are likely to base their decision to involve their children in cacao farming based on their belief that work has a formative value, whether their local school was any good and the economic trade-off made between sending their child to school versus investing in a farm.  In other cases, when parents went through a divorce if mothers remarried it was quite common for the new husband to refuse to pay for the child’s upkeep, which had an impact on whether or not the child entered the workforce  to support himself (Berlan, 2013).  In cases like these, child labor is not forced as in slavery but is instead shaped by sociocultural factors surrounding the child.

Just who is to blame for the existence of child labor in chocolate?  While the answer is hard to pinpoint because of all of the diverse factors influencing the topic, one culpable party might include the government.  When public outrage began to surface in the early 2000’s in response to reports about child trafficking in Mali, Ghanian and Ivorian officials largely shut down these rumors claiming that few children were trafficked on farms and that most of them were taking part in an apprenticeship overseen by their own parents.  Their claims were backed up by a study out of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that found that not all children working in cacao were exploited; In fact when some were returned to their homes by charity workers they left right away to pursue work elsewhere (Ryan, 2011).  However, as child labor has continued to exist in light of the government’s non-involvement, perhaps the government could continue to work with smallholders to find ways for them to cultivate their cacao without depriving their children of an education or selling them into slavery.

Another culpable party includes Big Chocolate itself.  The industry needs to make changes to its practices in order to reduce the incidence of child labor.  According to Ryan (2013) one major problem is the lack of involvement that Big Chocolate has with its smallholders.  Bill Guyton, the president of the World Cocoa Foundation claimed that by having about 2 million small-scale farmers it was hard for large chocolate companies to know what was happening on their farms everyday.  Also, as few bars are made from beans that are all from the same producer it is hard to claim that any one bar of chocolate doesn’t contain ingredients produced by children (Ryan, 2013).  One solution, however, could be the use of certification practices in which a third-party verifies that responsible and sustainable practices are used in the production of chocolate.  For example, the American cocoa processor Cargill works with Utz Certified to train their farmers in responsible practices and checks each farmer every year, with the aim to eliminate the involvement of children in the cocoa supply.  In requiring standards like this for all large chocolate companies, Big Chocolate could at least attempt to solve the child labor crisis.

Child-labor-infographic-portrait1

(UTZ certification: A promise to combat child labor in the cacao supply chain) (Utz, 2017)

In response to the media coverage that child labor in chocolate has received in recent years, many efforts have been made at different levels to end this practice.  At the political level, governments of both cacao-producing and cacao-importing nations have made some steps towards this end.  For example, in the US Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel both proposed a no child labor label for cacao brought into the US.  While it failed to pass due to lobbying by the  industry, the effort did result in the Harkin-Engels protocol, a voluntary agreement into which chocolate manufacturers could enter with the aim of reducing involuntary labor by underage children (Coe & Coe, 2013).  The governments of West African nations have also gotten involved; In 2000 Cote D’Ivoire signed an agreement with Mali to punish people who used and exploited child workers and to send the trafficked children back to Mali (Chanthavong, 2002).

Responses to the child labor crisis have come also from the industrial and the societal levels.  As previously mentioned, companies like Cargill have made steps towards reducing the involvement of this practice in the manufacturing of their own chocolate by using certification like Utz.  Other certifications, like Fair Trade International, ensure that forced labor, child labor and child trafficking are not involved in the manufacturing of the product (Fair Trade International, 2017).  While these certifications are not completely without flaws, companies that choose to align with them are attempting to ensure children’s rights and displace child labor from the cacao supply chain. 

Some chocolate companies have fully committed themselves to excluding child labor from their supply chain altogether.  One such company is Green & Black.  Jo Fairley, who founded the company, contracted a co-operative of Kekchi Maya living in Belize to grow cacao without the use of pesticides and fertilizers by paying them almost double the price for cacao on the world market.  In doing so, she enabled the workers to make enough money to send their children to school, thus decreasing the need for their involvement in labor of any kind (Coe, 2013).  Similarly, Rain Republic, a chocolate company based out of Guatemala, refuses to use child labor and instead focuses on bringing literacy and education to the children of the cacao suppliers involved with the company. 

    

(Rain Republic and Green & Black: Two chocolate companies which pledge not to use child labor in their supply chains) (Left: Montes, 2016) (Right: Green & Black’s, n.d.)

Chocolate is a commodity which has the power to truly polarize people; Consumers consider fine chocolate to be a luxury and an indulgence while the worst off of its producers endure daily human rights abuses to cultivate it.  Despite the existence of the egregious malpractice which is child labor labor in the cacao industry, it would be a disservice to represent the entire industry of chocolate and cacao as scandalous.  Chocolate brings happiness to many of its consumers.  And for its producers it provides much needed income, particularly in the nations of West Africa.  But the evidence seems to suggest that the industry as a whole could benefit from more intervention and oversight at the governmental, societal and industrial level.  The use of more certifications in the industry could hold producers to a higher standard and the introduction of more ethical businesses, like Green & Black and Rain Republic, could turn the tide of chocolate from an industry that exploits children into one which funds their educations and ultimately their futures.

Works Cited:

Anti-Slavery International. (2004).  The cocoa industry in West Africa: A history of exploitation.  London: Anti-Slavery International.

Berlan, A. (2013). Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.  The Journal of Developmental Studies, 49, 1088-1100.

Clarence-Smith, W.G. (2000).  Cocoa and chocolate, 1765-1914.  London, UK: Routledge.

CNN. (2015). Chocolate’s child slaves. [Video]. URL: http://www.cnn.com/videos/ world/2015/05/26/chocolate-child-slaves-ivory-coast-spc-cfp.cnn

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (1996).  The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Fair Trade International. (2017).  Fair Trade International: Child and Forced Labor.  Web.  URL: https://www.fairtrade.net/programmes/child-labour.html

Green & Black’s. Web. URL: http://us.greenandblacks.com/shop-gifts/50-and-up.html

Lowy, B. (2016). A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods at a farm near Abengourou in eastern Ivory Coast in December.  [Photograph]. URL: http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/

Manzo, K. (2005).  Modern slavery, global capitalism & deproletarianism in West Africa.  Review of African Political Economy, 32, 521-534.

Montes, Erick. (2016). Rain republic branding and packaging.  Web. URL: http://erickmontes.com/work/rain-republic-branding-and-packaging

O’Keefe, B. (2016).  Big chocolate child labor.  Fortune Magazine. Web.  URL: http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/

Off, C. (2006).  Bitter chocolate: The dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet.  New York, New York: Random House Publishing.

Ryan, O. (2011).  Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa.  London, UK: Zed Books.

UTZ. (2017). Child labor. [Photograph].  URL: https://utz.org/what-we-offer/sector-change/child-labor/

 

 

 

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