Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Ivory Coast Cocoa A Child Slavery Story

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, July 4 / 16

Zack Gross

When people invite me to speak about fair trade I like to give them an upbeat presentation.  After all, paying people a fair wage or return on their products is a happy story!  My recent visit to farming communities in northern Peru, where producers in the fair trade system grow and process coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and tropical fruit for the European and North American markets, reinforced for me the positive impact this alternative form of trade has.

However, some audiences invite me, as one did recently, to talk about the dark side of a product – in this case the cocoa industry that produces the chocolate that we so enjoy!  I’ve often said that if consumers knew that their conventional chocolate bars come from the labour of child slaves, they probably would think at least twice before buying them.  In that regard, there actually is a class action law suit before the courts in the U.S. stating exactly that: consumers wouldn’t have bought all those bars, if they knew the dark side of chocolate production!

Seventy percent of the cocoa in the world is grown in West Africa, in the countries of Ivory Coast and Ghana.  Most of the cocoa producers are small landowners with just two or three hectares of land – what we might consider to be at most a market garden – and they are very poor.  This is because while cocoa is a $100 billion global industry, prices available to producers are so low that they can barely make ends meet. 

Demand for chocolate is up 13% in the world today, caused by India and China with growing middle classes, yet a Ghanaian farmer makes only 84 cents / day and an Ivorian one just 50 cents / day! In fact, a company like Nestlé, which sells a lot of chocolate worldwide, has annual sales that are larger than the Gross Domestic Product of Ghana and Ivory Coast combined!

More than two million children work as labourers or slaves in the cocoa industry, up 20% in recent years even though there is more publicity about this issue.  Industry watchdogs estimate that 96% of these kids, aged 8 to 14, are involved in hazardous activity and that more than a third of them suffer injury from the super-sharp machetes they use.  Many others suffer heat stroke or develop hernias from carrying heavy burdens.

While some children are the family members of local people or the farmers themselves, many are also trafficked into the cocoa fields from Mali, Burkina Faso and other West African countries.  Parents may let their children be taken to the cocoa fields because they are promised that their kids will get some schooling and wages, but most often these are lies.  Instead, children are beaten, sometimes chained, and often don’t know that there could be a better life available to them away from this backbreaking labour.

The U.S.-sponsored Harkin-Engel Protocol, an agreement to bring greater regulation to the cocoa industry signed back in 2001, has “Big Chocolate” (Nestlé, Mondelez, Hershey) promising to reform by the year 2020.  While companies may sign on to these measures, enforcement is hard to come by.  Lawyers for the regulators say that only 1% of official cases of child slavery result in a penalty.

The problems with chocolate are complex.  As long as there is no escape from poverty, many producers will use child labour or, in some cases, pick up and leave, looking for better prospects.  Unless companies and consumers invest in cocoa – support better production methods and pay more for the finished product – there may ultimately not be much of an industry left.  There is also a climate issue, as producers – often the most vulnerable - fight the effects of changing weather patterns.  Forty percent of the crops in the world are experiencing diseases borne of greater heat and humidity.

Efforts are being made to address the problems of child labour.  The business and finance magazine Fortune chose to focus on cocoa and child slavery in a recent edition.  Governments, such as that of the Ivory Coast, not wanting their cocoa industry to collapse under the weight of its problems and bad publicity related to child labour - with the resultant loss of foreign currency - has built 17,000 classrooms in the past five years, bringing attendance up to almost three-quarters of the youth population.  Previously, warring factions in that country armed themselves using revenues from the cocoa industry.

As well, the larger multinationals have involved themselves in the International Cocoa Initiative and Cocoa Action, promoting sustainable farming practices, encouraging villages to grow food for local consumption as well as cocoa for export, and supporting the use of new technology.  They have not been as successful in dealing with the social problems related to labour.

While not every company or country will ultimately adopt fair trade certification, the example of a better system socially, economically and environmentally, is pushing them to improve their practices. It is also up to citizens around the world, when they get the “munchies,” to look for a better alternative than the snack bar that keeps children in slavery.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s
The Marquis Project.

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