From Exploitation to Empowerment: Reforming the Labor Practices in the Cocoa Industry

There has been a long history of European powers using exploitative practices in order to build wealth. These practices stemmed from the notion that individuals of a darker skin tone were inferior and less refined than those from Europe and white ancestry in general. This hierarchical system created by the Western world influenced how Europeans approached their interactions with the indigenous people in the Americas and African populations. Due to their cultural and racial differences, both of these groups of people were trapped into forced labor systems, where they had no rights and were given no compensation. The result was two-fold: Native Americans died at alarming rates from disease and harsh working conditions and Africans, while not affected as heavily by disease, were continually exploited and were exposed to the most inhumane conditions and treatment in the history of the Americas. Even though slavery has been legally abolished across the world for over 100 years, it produced a lasting residual effect on prevailing labor practices across the African continent. These exploitative practices have led to cacao farmers being paid pennies compared to the billions of dollars in profits that American and European companies are making from the cacao plant and cheap labor. In addition, child labor has continued to be a common practice that has not been abolished, due to the fact that African farmers cannot afford to pay their workers substantive wages. A few bean-to-bar chocolate companies have recognized these issues and have made strides to institute practices that reverse the trend of exploitation of African farmers. In particular, Divine Chocolate, a chocolate company headquartered in Washington D.C., has taken meaningful steps to evaluate how their practices can mirror the ethical standards of fair trade and non-exploitative business transactions.

The existence of modern slavery, pertaining to the production of cacao, is centered around the exploitative practices that took root in São Tomé and Príncipe in the early 1900s. Slaves from Angola were sent to São Tomé and Príncipe and were stationed on the Portuguese plantations that were scattered across the islands. Amanda Berlan states, “Anti-Slavery International (2004) reports that the use of slaves from Angola was common on Portuguese plantations on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe from the 1880s; according to Clarence-Smith, forced labour in cocoa production continued there until 1962” (1092). While the rest of the world assumed that slavery had been completely abolished, it was very much a part of the everyday culture in São Tomé and Príncipe, mainly because of the growing demand for chocolate all around the world, and the fact that the infrastructure of the islands lent itself to a plantation system. As Lowell Satre describes, “There were about 230 rocas (plantations) on São Tomé and 50 on Príncipe, some owned by individuals, others held by corporations” (10). While the economies of São Tomé and Príncipe were dependent on the production of cacao, Angola’s economy also benefited from these islands’ demand for free labor. However, Angolans were not all keen to the idea of slavery, and some of the native Angolans that potentially were not opposed to the institution of slavery itself were convinced that Angola needed the labor for economic development rather than São Tomé and Príncipe. Satre states, “Though some were disturbed over the institution of slavery, many in Angola complained that labor essential for the development of the province was going to instead create wealth for rich plantation owners on the islands” (8). For the rest of the world, the reality of the continuance of slavery was hidden from the public eye until large corporations that specialized in chocolate became exposed.

Angolans who were forced into slavery in São Tomé and Príncipe.

Source: “São Tomé and Príncipe.” Rhodes House Archive.

Many of the largest chocolate corporations like Cadbury were buying cacao beans at ridiculously low prices in Africa, and Cadbury in particular was purchasing a significant amount of cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe. According to William A. Cadbury, the company had no idea that the cacao beans it was buying came from slave labor. Satre states, “In early 1901, when William A. Cadbury visited Trinidad…he was told that slave labor was used on the island of São Tomé. Shortly thereafter, this unsubstantiated comment was given credence when the Cadbury company received an offer of a plantation for sale in São Tomé that listed as assets two hundred black laborers” (18). Cadbury’s exposure to these exploitative practices was massive; the company bought 45 percent of its cacao beans from São Tomé each year, confirming that almost half of Cadbury’s revenue was obtained via slave labor. In addition, the details of the offer for the plantation give insight into the scope and magnitude of slavery in São Tomé, given that the island had 230 plantations with thousands of slaves in total. The written work of Henry Nevinson and Joseph Burtt were two of the first forms of documentation that depicted the coerced labor in São Tomé and Príncipe to be distributed across the globe. As a result, many British corporations in the chocolate industry boycotted the cacao in São Tomé and Príncipe and searched for a new area that would supply large amounts of cacao for low prices. All eyes turned towards Ghana, which was then referred to as the Gold Coast, and Côte d’Ivoire.

One of Cadbury Chocolate’s advertisements, which depicts the exploitative practices used for cacao production in West Africa.

Source: “Cadbury’s Cocoa Essence.” Cadbury Chocolate.

Even though production of cacao grew significantly during the early 1900s, initially, most cacao farming was small scale; however, when the production of cacao in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire grew at an almost exponential rate, both countries grappled with their own issues surrounding the quality of working conditions. Various aspects of cacao production included clearing the trees, planting the cacao seeds, spraying fertilizers and pesticides, transporting the cacao pods, and slicing open the cacao pods. These duties were completed in environment that proved to be hazardous and dangerous for even adults. The cacao farmers suffered from various diseases, injuries, burns, and lacerations, coupled with the fact that many of them did not have access to clean water, food, or cleaning spaces. Not only did cacao farmers have to work in hazardous conditions, but they also received extremely low wages, which were subject to unpredictable fluctuations throughout each year. The income of each farmer was directly tied to that year’s profits. These farms were being exploited by the major chocolate corporations in Europe and the United States, receiving less than a penny on every dollar these companies made selling chocolate. Given the exploitative power dynamic between companies and farms, farmers were drastically affected financially: each farmer only received a very small percentage of each farm’s revenue. Carol Off states, “By the end of the millennium, Côte d’Ivoire was one of the most indebted nations on earth, even as it supplied almost half of the world’s cocoa to the multi-billion-dollar industry and helped to satisfy the world’s addiction to chocolate. Cocoa farmers slid deeper and deeper into poverty” (118).

The use of child labor for cacao production in Côte d’Ivoire.

Source: Lowy, Benjamin.”Young Boy Uses a Machete to Break Cacao Pods.” Fortune.

The low and inconsistent wage that adult farmers received was one of the main reasons child labor became commonplace in both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Low and inconsistent wages meant that families were forced to remove their children from school to provide the additional income they needed to live at a subsistence level. As Ryan describes, “One interviewee in a British documentary suggested that as many as 90 percent of Ivorian farms used slave labor. This implied there were hundreds of thousands of slaves in Côte d’Ivoire. A BBC report suggested that 15,000 children were in slavery on these plantations” (48). The statistics pertaining to child labor reveal how central it was to the production of cacao. Children working on cacao plantations were at a greater risk than the adult farmers: “hazardous work…is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. On the cocoa plantation, this is generally defined to include work which involves dangerous machinery, equipment or tools, the handling of heavy loads and exposure to pesticides or chemicals” (Ryan, 48). Children started working and dropping out of school at a very young age and were exposed to tasks that were dangerous for adults to perform. Child labor was essential to the production of cacao and children were very active in all of forms of work in the field. Berlan states, “Of children aged 5–17 years, 39 percent are known to be engaged in economic activities, of which 57 percent are engaged in agriculture, forestry and fishing and 88 percent are unpaid family labour or apprentices” (1090). In addition to the risky activities that children took part in on the cacao plantations, some of them were placed under physical duress by their superiors; this violence put a strain on the children physically, socially, and emotionally. Off’s account provides an example of how child labor was connected to the emergence of child trafficking: “The farmers, or their supervisors, were working the young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunk-houses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten. They had horrible sores on their backs and shoulders, some as a result of carrying the heavy bags of cocoa, but some likely the effects of physical abuse” (121). Children from areas surrounding the cacao plantations and even in neighboring countries were at risk to be kidnapped and forced to produce cacao. Ryan states, “Traffickers preyed on children at bus stops in Mali, promising riches on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire. Once children got to the farm, they survived on little food, little or no pay and endured regular beatings” (44). These conditions that children had to endure are correlative to the experiences of slaves. Children were separated from their families, forced to work for long periods of time, and stripped of their own dignity while they were still in the developmental phase of their lives. Ryan states, “There were no chains and no irons, but, unable to leave their place of work, they were effectively slaves, harvesting the beans that were the key ingredient for chocolate” (44). Slavery continued to persist and it arose due to the demand of the American and European populations and the greed of the large chocolate corporations that desired to obtain the highest possible profit.

The inhumane conditions that children were forced to work in.

Source: “Child Slavery.” The Independent.

Given these horrific work conditions, government policies and initiatives were created to combat the inhumane treatment of the adult and child farmers. The International Labour Organization set standards of appropriate labor practices and detailed the worst forms of child labor. Even though these standards sent a message that child labor was not acceptable, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire were and have remained in violation of them. In fact, over 500,000 children in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire were in violation of the guidelines set by the International Labour Organization. Policies were also put in place with the goal of eventually eradicating the worst forms of child labor and coerced labor in the world. One of the policies is the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which is a voluntary agreement that included governments, chocolate companies, cocoa farmers, and other entities. Off states, “The Harkin-Engel Protocol…would be one of the first fully voluntary arrangements for regulating industry in U.S. history and certainly the most ambitious. The cocoa companies agreed to accept a six-point program designed to eliminate child slave labour in the cocoa chain” (144). In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the goal of the protocol was to diminish the worst forms of child labor by 70 percent by 2015. However, this goal was not achieved, so the deadline was extended to 2020. Various organizations, such as the International Cocoa Initiative and the International Cocoa Organization, have been created to further the mission of the Harkin-Engel Protocol: reduce the worst forms of child labor and forced labor. The International Cocoa Initiative raises awareness around the experiences of children enduring through the harsh working conditions that accompany the production of the cacao plant. It also administers trainings on child labor and the impact it has on the communities in West Africa, working closely with all entities that interact within the world of cacao production and consumption. The International Cocoa Organization serves both cacao consuming and producing countries, allowing for meditation and the recognition of collective interests. In addition to the creation of international initiatives and organizations, major corporations in the chocolate industry have pledged to become more socially responsible regarding their business transactions with cacao farmers. Many corporations have received certifications and label their products as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Utz Certified, etc. in order to emphasize to consumers their adoption of new practices.

Goals established by the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

Source: “Eliminating Child Labor from Cocoa.” United States Department of Labor.

Divine Chocolate is a chocolate company that has exceeded the efforts of many other major chocolate corporations to improve labor conditions. Divine Chocolate partnered with a co-operative of farmers in Ghana called Kuapa Kokoo, which has significant autonomy over the trading and selling processes of the cacao it produces. Unlike most co-operatives, Kuapa Kokoo actually owns a large percentage of the shares of Divine Chocolate: “Divine Chocolate is the only Fairtrade chocolate company that is also co-owned by cocoa farmers. Kuapa Kokoo farmers benefit not only from the Fairtrade premium on the sale of their beans, but also receive the largest share (44%) of Divine’s distributable profits giving the farmers more economic stability, as well as the increased influence in the cocoa industry” (Divine Chocolate). Instead of cacao farmers receiving less than a penny on every dollar of profit from their product, the members of Kuapa Kokoo are able to increase their income at a rate that far exceeds all other cacao collectives in Ghana. As a result, the farmers are able to live with more stability and begin the process of building wealth. Because the low wage that cacao farmers in Ghana were paid was a central cause of the industry’s heavy dependence on child’s labor, the adoption of this new framework, which raised wages, gave farmers the necessary resources to do without child labor entirely. Because Divine Chocolate is Fairtrade Certified, it empowers the cacao producers by establishing a minimum price for the products they produce and a premium for the products that are sold. Each of these reforms of the Fairtrade system give cacao farmers the ability to improve their living standards, their business, and their community (Divine Chocolate). Another important aspect of Divine Chocolate’s mission is its focus on women’s empowerment: “Projects supported by the [Producer Support and Development Fund] are aimed particularly at empowerment of women, maintaining good governance, and testing different farming techniques — and include an adult literacy and numeracy program, and a model farm project” (Divine Chocolate). Divine Chocolate recognizes the significant role that women play in the production of cacao in Ghana and aims to equip them with the tools to become better professional leaders and more advanced business people. With these ambitious programs and practices, Divine Chocolate is actively trying to revolutionize the cocoa industry. Unlike many large chocolate corporations, which are mainly concerned with how much profit they attain at the end of each quarter, Divine Chocolate has proactively addressed issues surrounding exploitation of African farmers, child labor, forced labor, and the silencing of women’s voices in the cocoa industry. In addition, Divine Chocolate has made an active effort to ensure that the farmers that produce cacao for Divine Chocolate are not only rewarded but are included in the process of building wealth and economic stability. There is more work to be done, but Divine Chocolate has been one of the companies to lead the way in changing the culture of business and chocolate.

Divine Chocolate’s commitment to women’s empowerment.

Source: “Women Cocoa Farmers: Hear Our Voice.” Divine Chocolate.

Works Cited:

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies. vol. 49, no. 8, Feb. 2013, pp. 1088-1100.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, New York, The New Press, pp. 1-336.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa, London, Zed Books, 2011, pp. 1-175.

Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trail: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business, Athens, Ohio University Press, pp. 1-199.

“Cadbury’s Cocoa Essence.” Cadbury Chocolate.

“Child Slavery.” The Independent.

Divine Chocolate, Divine Chocolate Limited, http://www.divinechocolate.com/us/about-us

“Eliminating Child Labor from Cocoa.” United States Department of Labor.

Lowy, Benjamin.”Young Boy Uses a Machete to Break Cacao Pods.” Fortune. Brian O’Keefe. 1 Mar. 2016.

“São Tomé and Príncipe.” Rhodes House Archive.

“Women Cocoa Farmers: Hear Our Voice.” Divine Chocolate.

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