The following post was written by Dary Goodrich, Chocolate Products Manager
For years at Equal Exchange we’ve been trying to call attention to the problem of forced child labor in the chocolate industry (see “Modern Slavery on Cocoa Farms” Equal Exchange 2006 Annual Report, “Reverse Trick-or-Treating” Equal Exchange 2007 Annual Report, “V-Days Dark Side” Special 2008 Chocolate Issue of What’s Brewing). Even working in this industry and knowing quite a lot about this issue, it is difficult to conceive of the fact that child slave labor still exists in today’s world. For many of us, it is so far outside of the realm of possibility in our own lives that we can’t fathom its existence.
Sadly, an August 3rd press release from Interpol revealed just how alive and real forced child labor is on cacao farms in West Africa. On June 18th and 19th, Interpol ran the first operation of its kind to free children working illegally on cacao and palm farms in the Ivory Coast. 54 children were rescued and the press release describes the conditions in which the children were working:
“The children had been bought by plantation owners needing cheap labour to harvest the cocoa and palm plantations. They were discovered working under extreme conditions, forced to carry massive loads seriously jeopardizing their health. Aged between 11 and 16, children told investigators they would regularly work 12 hours a day and receive no salary or education. Girls were usually purchased as house maids and would work a seven-day week all year round, often in addition to their duties in the plantations.”
How can this be acceptable? How can an industry that knows this exists continue to allow it to happen? Especially an industry that turns around and profits by selling cocoa and chocolate to children in Europe and North America. The industry has been pressured since 2001 to tackle the issue and has repeatedly pledged to root out the problem. First they promised to stomp out forced labor by 2005, and in 2005 they said it would take just two more years. Yet here is proof that it has not only failed to curb child slavery, but, in fact, the press release states that there is an “increasing trend in child trafficking and exploitation in this south eastern part of Côte D’Ivoire.”
After years of foot dragging, many of the large chocolate companies have finally started working on “sustainable” sourcing practices that are meant to address the issue of the worst forms of child labor. However, this is planned to take years: the practices may not cover 100% of a companies’ products, nor in most cases will they address the root cause of the issue. The fact is that most of the proposed solutions do not discuss the need to increase prices to farmers and if farmers in this traditional system cannot make enough money to survive they are forced to find the cheapest labor possible, which in this case are innocent children.
We know that there are other ways of doing business; clearly the Fair Trade model which emphasizes higher prices, pre-harvest credit, environmental sustainability and direct relationships with small-scale farmer co-operatives, is a far more ethical and sustainable business model. People, not profits, are at the heart of our businesses and we know that makes a real difference.