The New Chattel: Economic Drivers of Coerced Labor in the Cocoa Industry

            The truly voluntary exchange of goods and services—a prerequisite of free market capitalism—has been absent from the history of chocolate. Nowhere has there been less freedom in this industry than in the relationship between capital and labor. Oppressive labor regimes in chocolate—slavery included—did not end with abolitionist movements at the turn of the nineteenth century; instead, de facto slavery persisted thereafter for several decades around the world. The explanatory variable for changing use of labor may instead be economic incentives. In this framework, ethical considerations represent only a marginal factor in the limitation of coerced labor; as we will see, labor productivity, commodity pricing, and growing demand for end-market goods such as chocolate have dictated the selection of labor. But even today, exploitation pervades the modern cocoa industry. While social currents are likely headed in the right direction, a truly equitable Snickers is probably a long way off.

            The notion that changing economic incentives can drive social change is not new. In his seminal work Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams argues that abolition in the British colonies was motivated not by altruism, but by the onset of “industrial development… [which] outgrew mercantilism and destroyed it” (106). The fundamental reasoning draws from the fact that slave labor is economically inferior to hired labor; in Williams words, “slave labor is given reluctantly, it is unskillful, it lacks versatility” (6). Of course, early plantations in the New World did make use of slave labor, but slave labor was not necessarily a first choice. The abundance of land and the relative scarcity of free labor made slavery the only viable economic alternative to maximize returns to agriculture. Once the returns from capital resources (such as land) had been exhausted, Williams contends, the inefficiencies of slavery become apparent and abolitionist movements took hold. The Williams model can be applied to the evolution of labor in the African cocoa industry: from slavery to coerced labor to modern-day oppressive labor regimes (such as child labor).

            Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, African colonies developed systems of coerced labor for cacao agriculture and other commodities. Though it is today considered a “peasant crop” in Africa (i.e. one characterized by individual ownership and small scale), cacao agriculture once operated under the plantation system. Some of the largest plantation economies existed in the Gulf of Guinea and on the islands of São Tomé and Principe (Clarence-Smith 150). In the case of the latter two, the Portuguese had abolished slavery in 1875, but a system of coerced labor persisted through the First World War. These workers could be considered de facto slaves, without access to the same rights or economic opportunities as the Portuguese. Portuguese landowners circumvented abolition law by paying their workers subsistence wages—even paying workers in bonds redeemable only at the plantation store or lending them certain resources, thereby indebting workers to the plantation system (Clarence-Smith 157).

In the post-war years, however, this system failed. Peasant farming emerged as a more cost-effective system for growing cacao despite its lack of scale—an outcome driven by what Clarence-Smith refers to as the “real cost of labor” (151). Initially, coerced labor may have been nominally cheap due low or non-existent wages. Over time, the real costs manifested as lower productivity and higher turnover relative to hired labor. For example, every year at Principe, 11% of adult cocoa laborers died, requiring a steady (and costly) stream of replacements—a demand satisfied mostly by coerced laborers from Angola (Ould et al. 5). As Clarence-Smith points out, mortality rates were amplified by diseases on the islands, to which imported labor was particularly vulnerable.

Above: Workers separate cacao seeds from their exterior pod. Seed extraction has historically been reserved for less experienced workers, including children. The act of cutting pods from cacao trees represents a more skilled task, as an improper cut may inhibit future growth (Clarence-Smith 154).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Cadbury (of Cadbury chocolate fame) uncovered the situation in São Tomé and Principe in 1905 through Dr. Joseph Burtt. Sent by Cadbury to investigate labor conditions, Burtt discovered that thousands of mainland Africans were imported every year to work on the cocoa plantations. On account of these findings and the ethical reservations they engendered, Cadbury and three other chocolate companies committed to boycott cocoa from the islands (Ould et al. 5). The initiative may have substituted some cacao demand from Africa to the Gold Coast in Australia, but there exists little evidence that it had a meaningful impact on production numbers. Ultimately, coerced labor persisted until plantations exhausted the returns from cacao production, after which cost-cutting initiatives took priority and “the advantage passed to peasants, who disposed of truly cheap labor” (Clarence-Smith 168).  

Today, Cacao is among a handful of crops that continues to be cultivated via peasant agriculture—supporting at least 5.5 million smallholder farmers globally (Weiligmann et al. 2010). A plurality of those farmers are located in Côte D’Ivoire, the world’s foremost producer of cacao, satisfying 40% of global consumption (Schrage and Ewing 100). But in Côte D’Ivoire and elsewhere in Africa where cacao is cultivated, local ownership has not eliminated coerced labor. The rampant use of child labor in the cocoa industry is one example of coerced labor that continues to this day.

Above: This video provides a quick summary of the scope of child labor in the cacao industry and the initiatives—such as the Harkin-Engel protocol—which have failed to enforce ethical labor standards.

According to an International Institute for Tropical Agriculture report from 2002, an estimated 284,000 children were engaged in child labor on cocoa farms in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria (International Labour Organization). The extent to which children have been coerced into working on cacao farms may have worsened in the two decades since that study. In 2019, the Washington Post published an investigative piece by Peter Whoriskey and Rachel Siegel which interviewed farmers and child laborers directly in Côte D’Ivoire. According to one farmer interviewed by the Post, “[child labor] is a kind of slavery.” Despite the fact that the laborers interviewed received about $4.50 for a week of grueling work, large chocolate companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé have moved slowly to address the problem (Whoriskey and Siegel). For more info, please refer to the Post article.

Chocolate is not a necessity; in the words of activist Paul Schoenmakers, chocolate is a gift, suggesting a lack of necessity (Whoriskey and Siegel). Yet, for this gift, millions have suffered and continue to suffer today, even in the face of advocacy from governments and nonprofit organizations. This may be due to the fact that economic incentives—which cannot as easily be changed by policymakers or activists—are a material driver of social change. Until development reaches the regions where cacao is grown and economic opportunities for labor improve, our institutions may be powerless to eliminate coerced labor and, therefore, a truly ethical chocolate bar may be impossible.

Works Cited:

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. “Cocoa Plantations and Coerced Labor in the Gulf of Guinea, 1870-1914.” In Breaking the Chains. Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia, University of Wisconsin Press.

Ould, David, et al. “The Cocoa Industry in West Africa: A History of Exploitation.” Anti-Slavery International, Anti-Slavery International, 2004,

“Rooting out Child Labour from Cocoa Farms: Paper No. 1.” International Labour Organization, International Labour Organization, 12 Jan. 2007, file:///Users/gentydaku/Downloads/RootingOut_CL_fromCcoca_Farms_No1_En (1).pdf.

Schrage, Elliot J., and Anthony P. Ewing. “The Cocoa Industry and Child Labour.” Journal of Corporate Citizenship, vol. 2005, no. 18, Jan. 2005, pp. 99–112., doi:10.9774/

Weiligmann, B., et al. “TCC Cocoa Barometer 2010.” Cocoa Net, Tropical Commodity Coalition, 2010,

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,

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s