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Chocolate Slavery: Slave Labor in the Cocoa Industry

With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

Chocolate's Dark Side: Child Slaves on the Ivory Coast

A small child hauls a 13-pound sack of cocoa beans on his slight frame, laboring through the heat of the day. Along the Ivory Coast in Africa, approximately 43% of the world’s cocoa beans are being harvested by slave labor. The children (some under the age of eleven years) are gathered from the impoverished streets of Mali, and are sent to work on cocoa plantations. The majority of the chocolate industry’s slaves are young boys between the ages of 12–16 years. Desperate parents sell their children for a few dollars, or the children are simply snatched up from the slums in the poorest areas of Mali. Up to 15,000 children are forced into hard labor, gathering the raw material for first world countries’ chocolate bars.

Cacao Trees Provide the Raw Material for Chocolate

A Case of Child Abuse on a Plantation

At the age of twelve, Aly Diabate1 doesn’t know what chocolate is, or even tastes like, as he harvests the almond-sized cocoa beans from the cacao trees on the plantation. He was tricked into slavery on the false promise of a bicycle and a yearly salary of $150, to help his impoverished parents in Mali. The child agreed and soon began working for the plantation boss, known as “Le Gros” (the Big Man). He has never seen a bicycle and his family has never seen the promised money—Aly spent his days trying to avoid the beatings from overseers on the plantation.

The plantation Aly worked on was a large, 494-acre cocoa farm that held 18 other boys as slaves. The children worked with the rising and setting sun, and were locked into a windowless, small room at nightfall. Dinner was often bananas, and there were no beds to sleep on. If the boys needed to use the toilet, they had to resort to tin cans left behind by Le Gros. Aly still bears the scars from whippings with bicycle chains and cacao tree branches, which were used to beat the boys who did not work fast enough to satisfy the overseers.

Les Gros (whose real name is Lenikpo Yeo) states the boys’ statements are false with regard to his plantation. He claims he fed, clothed, and appropriately treated the youngsters on his plantation. He does admit that an overseer beat a boy who ran away, though he never officially sanctioned the beating.

The boy that Les Gros admits was beaten was the one to free all the other boys. He escaped once, was caught and beaten, and then escaped again. The second time he was successful, and young Oumar Kone managed to reach the local police force. The police interceded on the behalf of the young boys, who were found in an undernourished and miserable state. One boy was found lying in his own excrement, covered in cacao leaves and suffering from a beating. Aly was the youngest boy on the plantation at the age of 13 years—the boys were freed and sent back to Mali.

Les Gros was imprisoned for 24 days and then released. Child battery receives a prison sentence of 5–10 years, but as the children have all been repatriated to Mali, there are no witnesses to give details on the abuse that occurred on the plantation.

1Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee, Knight Ridder Newspapers, June 24, 2001

Jobs on a Cocoa Plantation

  • Applying pesticide
  • Picking pods
  • Opening pods to get the beans
  • Carrying heavy sacks of cocoa beans

A Protocol to End Chocolate Slavery

Human trafficking and child abuse are major problems along the west coast of Africa. Cocoa plantations are so notorious for the use of forced child labor (and forced adult labor) that U.S. Representative Eliot Engel and Senator Tom Harkin created a protocol to end child slavery and initiate labeling for products that are produced “slave free.” A joint committee was formed and called the International Cocoa Initiative, with the aim to have a standard of certification for slave-free cocoa by 2005. Major chocolate manufacturers (including Nestle and Cargill) signed the protocol, volunteering to end the use of child labor to avoid legislation against the slave plantations on the Cote d’Ivoire. The goal was not met, and the protocol has still not had any effect on reducing child slavery along the Ivory Coast.

In July 2005, a lawsuit was waged against Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. Filed on the behalf of Malian children who are sold into slavery, the suit alleged children worked 12–14 hour days with no pay, were subjected to physical abuse, and received little food or sleep.

In August 2005, Nestle filed a motion to require all child slaves to reveal their names, removing the protection of anonymity (and subjecting the children to potential retaliatory violence once their names were lodged in the complaint).

The defendants in the case (Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland) filed for a dismissal of the entire lawsuit. In a 2006 rebuttal, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a declaration in opposition of dismissal. The case is currently waiting on a court ruling regarding the motion to dismiss the entire suit.

Survey of Child Labor on Cocoa Farms

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture conducted a survey on child labor on West African cocoa plantations in 2002: 153,000 children were found applying pesticides to trees without any form of protection, only 34% of child workers attended school (in contrast to 64% of children who did not work on cocoa farms), and 40% of the child laborers were girls. 64% of the children on the farms were under the age of 14.

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How Are Children Purchased for Slave Labor?

Some might question why any parent would sell a child into slavery. An insight into the situation comes from the impoverished country of Burkina Faso, north of the Ivory Coast. A farmer recounts his offers to the parents of children in his old hometown village:

"When I need workers I go back to my village in Burkina Faso and tell my relatives that I want people to help me on my cocoa farm. If they have children who are still in the village, they will send them with me. I settle on a price with their fathers for each child and on the number of years they will stay. The father then sends them to my farm or, if they are too small to find their way, my brother goes to get them. I pay about 100,000 CFA (ca £100) when the child is older, and 70,000 CFA (ca £70) when the child is small"

- The Cocoa Industry in West Africa: A History of Exploitation. Anti-Slavery International, 2004

Some of the children do return to their village with money once the term has ended. The family and neighbors benefit from the money greatly. While many children fall into the entrapment of slavery, the few who return have a great pay-off. Having a child return with cash could be compared to winning the lottery, though the cost of playing is in human lives and not money. For desperate families in need of food and basic medical care, the few children who return with money makes the gamble seem worthwhile.

Where do the child slaves come from?

Main Street in Burkina Faso

Rue Principal in Burkina Faso. Many children in used for slave labor in the cocoa industry come from this country.

Rue Principal in Burkina Faso. Many children in used for slave labor in the cocoa industry come from this country.

A Chain of Blame

How does slavery continue to exist in today's world? The blame for chocolate's slave labor is passed off from one entity to the next. The plantation farmers blame the low price of cocoa, which pushes them to obtain cheap (or free) labor. The government of the Ivory Coast blames the foreign countries which supply the slaves, and who also run many of the Cocoa Plantations. Chocolate manufacturers like Nestle claim they rely on the cocoa suppliers to provide a slave-free raw material, while the suppliers state they hold no control over the farms where the cocoa comes from. The Ivory coast's government is politically unstable, which makes passing and enforcing regulations difficult.

Of course, there is the end-user: first world consumers who purchase chocolate as a luxury item. Many customers have absolutely no idea that their chocolate bar was made from materials gathered by a maltreated child slave.

Chocolate Consumption: A Poll

Slave-Free Chocolate

How can a consumer avoid purchasing slavery-tainted chocolate? Without an official label to identify slave-free cocoa products, the easiest mark to look for is a "Fair Trade" label on the chocolate bar. This is not an absolute guarantee against slavery, but the higher prices paid to the cocoa farmers on Fair Trade chocolate increases the chances that the cocoa was harvested through hired hands and not slave labor.

Organic chocolate is another good bet: organic farms are subject to more thorough inspection and regulation, reducing the chances that child slave labor is employed on the plantation.

In fact, it might be a good idea to check for a Fair Trade seal on coffee and cotton products, too: these crops are grown alongside cocoa in Africa, and also rely on slave labor to provide cheap raw materials for the first world market.

Nestlé Investigates Its Cocoa Supply Chain

The Fair Labor Association conducted an investigation of Nestlé's supply chain in late 2011. 20 local and international experts mapped the supply chain in the Ivory Coast, and mapped the stakeholders in the supply chain. Nestlé was fully supportive of the investigation, and the Vice President of the chocolate company stated that there is "no way" their company can abide by the child slavery practices used in West Africa.

The final report of the supply chain indicated that:

  • Nestlé purchases 10% of the world's cocoa supply, and 37% of that cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast.
  • Nestlé has purchases cocoa from one fair-trade supplier and has indirect relationships with 35 other suppliers.
  • 20 cooperatives and 2 cooperative unions were visited by the investigators.
  • Young workers (including children) were interviewed during each investigation.
  • Children are involved in pulling weeds, cutting with large machetes, digging shallow holes, and carrying bags of cocoa.
  • 12% of adult cocoa plantation workers are indebted.
  • 25% of child laborers were coerced by their parents to work on a cocoa farm.
  • A lack of school infrastructure combined with low wages leads to an increase of child labor.
  • The most common injuries are from machetes.

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Trade, Part 1

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Trade, Part 2

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Trade, Part 3

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Trade, Part 4

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Trade, Part 5

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Leah Lefler

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