Chocolate and Child Slavery
About ten years ago reports started to surface alleging that West African cocoa production was tainted with child slavery. Well, it’s no longer an allegation. It is now considered fact throughout the industry.
Over 15,000 children have been used as slaves to grow chocolate in recent years, and those are only the kids between 9 and 12 years old. One estimate for Ivory Coast says that over 90% of the country’s cocoa farms have used child labor, a staggering figure for the country that produces half of the world’s chocolate.
Child slavery has been linked to some of the best-known chocolate companies in the world, including Hershey’s, Nestle, and Godiva. It is impossible for these companies to prove that their chocolate is not tainted with slavery, and they admit it. The beans all get mixed together during production, which makes most chocolate affected in some way.
Typically the slaves are young boys from Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo who are tricked into slavery with promises that they will be able to make money for their families. Deeply respectful of their parents, the boys eagerly agree because they want to provide for their mothers and fathers any way they can. But when they are taken across the border, many of them never see their families again. The going rate is $30/boy.
Conditions on the farms for these boys are brutal. They eat corn paste and burnt bananas, or nothing if they are being punished. Beatings and whippings occur daily. Beds consist of wooden slabs, and the small room where they all sleep is locked down at night so that they can’t escape. Some of the smallest boys are expected to carry bags of cocoa beans that are taller than they are. When they can’t hold the weight, they are severely beaten. Many of the boys, when found by authorities, have healed scars as well as open wounds all over their bodies.
A few children have escaped and reported the abuses. Unfortunately, because they are then sent home to their parents, the perpetrators do not have any witnesses to accuse them at trial. They often go free after a few nights in jail.
The Chocolate Manufacturers Association and some non-profits are working within West Africa to educate the public on this issue. It is hard for authorities to find the slaves, as many family farms have their own children working as field hands or legitimately hire boys from the area.
Many farmers do not even think the trafficked children are their slaves, even though they paid for them and beat them every day. Because they genuinely intend to pay them eventually, they think of the boys as indentured at worst – it’s just that they don’t have the money to pay them right now. And some parents don’t believe that old men would ever want to hurt a child. In Mali, parents whose sons have escaped and come home still have trouble accepting the news of what has happened to them.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I propose that we join up with the many never-ending fasts on chocolate made by slaves, just as abolitionists in Britain stopped taking sugar in their tea.
For now, the only way to know for a fact that our chocolate was not made by child slaves is to buy Fair Trade chocolate, because part of getting Fair Trade certification is proving that no slavery has been used. We can also write to our chocolate companies to demand assurance that they will only work with farmers who do not use slaves.
Most of the child slaves in West Africa do not even know what chocolate is. They know only of the bean, but have never tasted the result. Hopefully one day all of our chocolate will be produced ethically, and these boys will get to learn what it tastes like as they share a bar of it in their schoolrooms.
Is it news to you that much of our chocolate is produced by child slaves? It was to me. How does it change your view of chocolate?
And let me know if you decide to join me in the never-ending fast, or if you’ve already been doing so – it’d be fun to have some partners!
Share any other ideas you have on the topic here!
Read one of the first reports on this subject by the BBC.
Read about this story from the eyes of rescued child slaves in the article “A Taste of Slavery.”