It’s no secret that a lot of us love chocolate, but what has always been a source of pleasure for us remains a source of pain for millions of others. When we say that chocolate is our guilty pleasure, we think of how it tastes great but is loaded with sugar and fat. However, one source of guilt that we often fail to acknowledge when consuming chocolate is the human cost hidden behind its production. From the indigenous people of Mesoamerica to the current children working in cocoa farms in West Africa, millions of men, women, and children have been exploited in the production of cocoa over the span of several hundred years. Despite countless efforts to reform labor practices in cocoa production, we continue to see issues like the child labor epidemic in West Africa. Moreover, while efforts to reduce exploitative labor practices in the chocolate industry continue, the future looks grim. With a history of cocoa and chocolate producers valuing profits over people, producers are likely to only continue looking for ways to cheapen the cost of their labor.
When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica, the origin of cacao and chocolate, it took very little time for them to grasp the importance of chocolate and begin to exploit the indigenous people of the land they had invaded (Coe and Coe 110). While chocolate was initially of interest to the Spanish due to the economic importance of cacao beans in the native economy, the Spanish slowly acquired a taste for chocolate and began to export it to Europe (Coe and Coe 125). Soon after the Conquest, the Spaniards were lured to Soconusco for their cacao. As the demand for chocolate increased due to a growing craving for chocolate in Europe, rapacious conquistadors began enslaving the indigenous people of Soconusco such that a slave would be valued at one fifth of a load of cacao. However, on May 29th, 1537 Pope Paul III Farnese would publish the Sublima Deus which threatened to excommunicate any Christian that enslaved an “Indian”. While this led to the end of the enslavement of indigenous people, this merely led to the Encomienda system in which encomenderos were getting what amounted to forced, free labor in return for which they were to see that the native people became Christians (Coe and Coe 178). However, due to an epidemic of diseases of Old World origin and mistreatment by the Spaniards, approximately 90% of the ingienous population of the Americas had died while the demand for chocolate only grew (Coe and Coe 125).
In order to meet the demands for cocoa by Europe without the loss of profits, the falling population of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica were offset by the importation of slaves from Africa. By the 17th century, two triangles of trade would arise in which raw materials, goods, and slaves would be traded between the New World, Europe, and Africa. The most important feature of these triangles was the “Middle Passage” in which human beings were sent across the Atlantic to be forced into labor on plantations run by European colonizers (Mintz 44). This plantation system in which sugar, cacao, and other products were produced were grounded in the use of harsh, forced labor in which the average life expectancy of an enslaved person living in the Caribbean and Brazil was about seven to eight years. Despite abolition and the emancipation of slaves throughout the 1800s, abolition did not put an end to extreme inequality or exploitative labor practices. For example, in the early 1900s, it was found that cocoa plantations in Fernando Po and Cameroon were still using slave labor. Moreover, the use of slaves was common on Portuguese plantations from the 1880s well into the 1950s (Martin). Thus for years many plantations were able to keep the price of cocoa down as demand went up by using forced labor and slavery.
Currently despite labor reformation efforts, child labor is still being utilized to produce the chocolate that we eat in the United States. Although major chocolate producers like Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey pledged to discontinue their use of cocoa harvested by children approximately 20 years ago, a great portion of the chocolate we buy and consume today contains cocoa produced by child labor (Whoriskey and Siegel). According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 2 million children have been found to be engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions in West Africa, where 60 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from (“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa”). Despite efforts to eradicate child labor from the chocolate industry, chocolate industries are unable to identify the farms from which their cocoa comes from, let alone identify their labor practices. For example, Mars can only trace 24 percent of their cocoa supply back to the farms in which they were produced (Whoriskey and Siegel). Thus, despite efforts by the chocolate industry to solve the child labor epidemic in the cocoa industry, deadlines and goals have only been pushed back.
The Full Story on Cocoa’s Child Laborers: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/business/hershey-nestle-mars-chocolate-child-labor-west-africa/
While the fight to improve labor conditions in the chocolate industry continues, it is unlikely that we will see big changes any time soon. With the history of cocoa producers having a blatant disregard for human life and clear mindset of profits over people, it will be extremely difficult for chocolate producers to trace their cocoa supplies back to farms or punish farms for exploitative labor practices as both of these efforts would require a large financial investment and cuts to profit. Moreover, until chocolate producers are willing to pay more for ethically sourced cocoa, farmers will be forced to continue using child labor in order to cope with cocoa’s low market price (Whoriskey and Siegel). Therefore, as long as the cocoa industry refuses to cut its profits in order to enact change, exploitative labor practices will continue.
“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa.” U.S. Department of Labor,
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.
Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” AFRAMER 119x. 26 Feb. 2020,
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.
Whoriskey, Peter, and Rachel Siegel. “Hershey, Nestle and Mars Won’t Promise Their Chocolate
Is Free of Child Labor.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 June 2019,