(part of the Lost Childhood series)
(Ghana and Ivory Coasts supply 75% of worlds' chocolate)
As the holiday season approaches many of us will begin to be tempted by seemingly endless displays of candies and chocolates at our local grocery store. The somewhat cleverly designed and well placed displays make it hard to ignore the massive amounts of cocoa that is available from October on through February. One holiday after the other brings candies and chocolates of different shapes and colors. But most of them have one thing in common (if they aren't "fair trade"). The use of child labor and/or slavery somewhere along the supply line.
As more information has come out about the use of both trafficked slaves and children on cocoa plantations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast the chocolate industry has deflected much of it's critics. Many of the largest chocolate companies in the world have denied access to humanitarian groups and reporters trying to gain access to the cacao farms in these countries. When reports do come out from these farms the news is almost always about vast human rights abuses being committed behind the veil that the corporations have erected.
In some of the worst cases the very governments of Ghana and Ivory Coast have harassed and expelled journalists for reporting on the chocolate industry within their borders. Some have even claimed that at least one journalist has been killed for his reporting on the industry. All of this in the name of keeping that dark chocolate powder flowing into the hands of companies like Mars, Hersey's, and Nestle.
While some children in West Africa do seek out employment on these farms on their own due to the plague of poverty across West African countries, many more are sold into the trade. This practice often peaks during times of political unrest and in areas where militias rule through fear. Yet it is also plentiful even in areas where Western tourism and companies are found. It is especially profitable for the traffickers where Western companies build up plantations just beyond the peering eyes of the outside world.
In Ghana and the Ivory Coast children as young as 7 have been documented operating dangerous (potentially fatally so) equipment and doing jobs even grown men would find difficult. The average age in these two countries for children to be in the "work force" is 12-16 years of age. However, most will have started working much younger. And for those who injure themselves along the way, these sorts of dangerous jobs may become their only source of work through adulthood.
“Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.”
~ Aly Diabate, former cocoa slave.
The work day for these children begins as soon as the sun begins to rise. They take to the cacao trees with heavy and dangerous machetes. Forced to climb the trees without any of the proper supports or tools to do the job they use their knives to cut down the cacao bean. Children who are not sent up the trees are forced to gather the beans and fill huge sacks with the harvest. These children are then expected to either drag the heavy loads back to the production facilities or have them placed upon their backs or heads and walk the sacks back. There is no sense of mercy in the fields as the children are beaten and yelled at for even the most minor of infractions. Anyone who dares slow down the production process is subjected to savage abuses that almost perfectly mirror the American South and the cotton plantations.
Once the dangers of harvesting the cacao beans is over the children are exposed to even more dangers. Their health is put at risk as they are exposed to chemicals, some of which are banned in the United States, used both on the harvested cacao and the trees themselves. Hulls of the beans are harvested and sold for several uses across the world (mulch being one), so the chemical soaked hulls must be handled by the children as well. During all of this these children are exposed to these chemicals on their bodies, in their lungs, and on the clothing they must wear day in and day out.
The health of these children is not a priority of companies that employ these tactics on their plantations across Western Africa. While Hersey's claims to be fighting the use of slave labor and child abuse the truth still stacks up against the chocolate giant. Over the past several years reports (and court cases) have been stacking up across the table from Hersey's corporate office. Accusations of supporting the beatings of children, encouraging of trafficking, and covering up of deaths of farm workers have all come down the line. And yet the chocolate giant has been incapable of proving any of it's accusers wrong.
Nestle, yet another giant, has done no better when fighting against the peering eyes of outsiders. Slavery, child labor, and the employment of traffickers has left a blight upon the image of a company that hides behind logos designed to appeal to children. When accused, much like Hersey's, Nestle has turned to the governments of the countries it operates in as though to hint at their complicity in the crimes. And it is this common deflection tactic that brings us to another portion of the story...
Ghana and Ivory Coast have long been accused of having their governments hands in the process of producing enormous quantities of cacao. Through turning a blind eye to the abuses, lining their pockets with corporate pay offs, and denying access to investigators the two regimes have hid the bulk of the evidence from the consumers. With every accusation levied against Hersey's and the other market leaders the two governments have been found to not only be helping the companies but willingly covering up their bed partners' offenses.
Ending The "Worst Forms Of Child Labor"
With a country where almost half the population is illiterate the government of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) can hardly afford to continue the punishing process in which chocolate is currently produced. The utilization of their most precious resource in production of a commodity they can afford to neglect robs the country of it's actual potential. Companies and governments in the West should be more than able to realize that by supporting this self-destructive habit will only continue to hold back the country itself. It will also continue to rob the world of the valuable contributions these children could have been offering the world community had they not been exploited by Western companies and the local offenders (as well as their own government).
For this reason it is valuable for us to note that some efforts have been made in fighting the "worse forms of child labor" in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Some companies, including Hersey's, have cooperated with local governments in building schools for children who work on cacao farms. Yet the main draw back of this small gesture is that the children continue to have to work dangerous jobs for much of the year.
In 2001 many of these same companies also promised the world that they would make their chocolate "child labor free" by 2005. Of course that benchmark came and went without any real condemnation when none of the companies managed to produce even a single line of chocolate without utilizing child labor. These companies did move the date to 2008 and lowered the rate to 50% of their production as being "child labor free". And once again the process of utilizing child labor along with slave labor did not change as the targeted date passed without notice.
So how can the system be changed when little to nothing is being done to end the use of any form of child labor (and/or slave labor)?
The main way any form of change occurs in the current system of consumerism is for the consumers themselves to start the change they desire. This means that as consumers we must not only avoid buying chocolate that utilizes child labor but also spread awareness of this issue. Through the creation of a vocal minority in the supply chain the consumers can start a revolt of sorts that would ultimately put pressure on the companies themselves. Buy not buying, lobbying the companies themselves, and protesting vocally (screaming) the consumer can demand the change they seek in the process of producing the products we would like to enjoy.
If no effort is made on the consumer end of the process then no change will ever come. We cannot rely upon governments, companies, and international organizations to create the change we seek. We are the source of change. We are the ones who hold the power in this relationship. All you have to do is stop buying and start fighting.
These children have been robbed of their voice. You can use yours to return theirs to them.
These children have been robbed of their freedoms. You can use yours to fight for theirs.
This holiday season do your part in waging a little war against the use of slavery and child labor. Raise your voice against the oppression and abuse of these innocent children and trafficked souls. Keep your cash and say no to the product their blood, sweat, and tears helped produce. It is the only way to we will ever bring an end to all the "worse forms" of abuse the world has to offer our most precious resource... our children.
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(note: not all sources listed)
Food Empowerment Project
International Labor Rights Forum