April 29, 2007

The Ugly Secret Behind Your Child’s Halloween Chocolate

The West African state of Ivory Coast has prime growing conditions for cocoa trees and provides almost half of the world’s cocoa beans. The economy is dependent on the cocoa plantations and 40% of export earnings in Ivory Coast are attributed to the cocoa industry. In the last decade, the cocoa prices have been so low that the farmers were actually losing money on their crops each year. A 2002 study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture found that the average yearly wage for cocoa growers in West Africa ranged from US$30 to $110. Because of decreasing prices and exploitive middlemen, farmers look for ways to cut costs forcing them to obtain children for cheap labor. Last Fall, the New York Times published a brilliant (and wrenching) piece of investigation of such slavery in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

According to the 2000 Human Rights Report released by the US State Department, 15,000 children between the ages of 9-12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations in West Africa in recent years. It is estimated that 284,000 children are working on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. Some of these children are working on the family farm, but a large percent of the children are slaves that have been sold or lured into the industry, most from Mali. The children are working instead of getting an education and are also deprived of a childhood.

The International Labor Organization reported that many of the children are involved in hazardous work and unprotected. The children are required to use dangerous sharp machetes in order to cut down the branches of tall trees. They are exposed to the harmful pesticides that are applied to the plants and the children do not have proper protection. Often the bags of cocoa beans that the children are required to carry are taller and weigh more than the children themselves. The owners of the farms do not pay the children, do not adequately feed them and frequently beat them. The children are locked up, to prevent escape, in a small room where they all sleep often on wooden planks.

In 2005 the International Labor Rights Fund brought a district court action lawsuit against Nestle, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, three of the largest chocolate producers, on behalf of children form Mali. The companies are accused of the involvement in the trafficking, torture, and forced labor of children who cultivate and harvest cocoa beans that the companies import from Africa. The children claim that they were taken form their homes and brought to Ivory Coast to work as slaves. Two federal statutes allow victims of human rights abuses who live outside of the United States to sue US companies for violations of international law. The statutes are the Torture Victim protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act. Evidently the case, filed under the latter, is still pending since last year as a shareholder complaint at the shareholder meeting earlier this month indicates.

In 2001, congress passed an act to end the buying of cocoa that was produced by slave labor in the United States. The Harkin-Engle Protocol was the bill was to end the buying of slave-trade beans by July 1, 2005. But the main chocolate companies, Hersey, Mars/M&M’s, and Nestle, were unable to meet the deadline of the protocol. In 2007, there are still child slaves working on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.

The idea of child slavery could be supported by the classical model of corporate responsibility, which states that management's only role is to maximize profits within the letter of the law. However, this practice is evidently illegal according to the U.S. statutes above. Furthermore, the influential neoclassical model of social responsibility does not support the use of slavery in any circumstances. This model states that “the pursuit of profit is constrained by an obligation to obey a moral minimum” to avoid inflicting harm (Joseph DesJardins). According to Samlanchith Chanthavong at American University, “The connection serves to illustrate that the existence of misery in one part of the world and joy in another part are no longer divorced as nations are connected together in a globalized web of trade.”

There are actions that these companies can take in order to ensure that children are not being exploited on the plantations. In a country where more than half the population is illiterate, basic education of “cocoa children” takes on an even more critical significance for Ivory Coast’s future. Ultimately the companies in the cocoa industry can use their power and money to combat an issue that would produce a result that would be good for the entire country and society.

If companies would buy and demand Fair Trade Certified cocoa, farmers would have the resources that would allow them to eliminate child labor on their farms. The Fair Trade Labor Organization makes annual inspection visits to producer groups on its Fair Trade Register to ensure that the benefits of Fair Trade relationships are reaching the farmers. The Fair Trade Certified label guarantees that farmers and workers received a fair price for their product. The Fair Trade price means that farmers can feed their families and that their children can go to school instead of working in the fields. This label also insures that forced or bonded labor is not permitted, nor may children work in circumstances that could jeopardize their education or lead to them performing hazardous tasks. Cooperatives also give farmers access to price information giving them the independence to negotiate prices for themselves.

The ethical response to forced child labor would be for the companies to buy and promote fair trade cocoa instead of supporting the terrible working conditions that are present on the plantations that produce the beans that companies purchase. Until then, we are supporting the exploitation of children with our continued financial support of cocoa beans. The practice will not be stopped unless the American people, corporations, and the international community force a change in the chocolate industry.