Chocolate children: The hidden cost of the world’s favourite sweet

Sharon Fawcett - Getting it Right (Shane Magee/AQ)

The world consumes three million tons of cocoa per year, earning chocolate manufacturers more than $62.1 billion U.S. annually, while those relying on cocoa growing for their livelihoods struggle to survive. Facing harsh economic realities, cocoa farmers do what they feel they must in order to make a living. That often involves human rights violations including forced labour, human trafficking, and slavery. Many of the victims are children.

The cost of buying a trafficked child for work on a cocoa plantation in West Africa is $300 Canadian. This covers indefinite use of the child’s labour, with no obligation for paid compensation.

In 2002, 1.8 million children worked in West Africa’s cocoa sector. Sixty-four per cent of them were under 14 years of age. The work is difficult, dangerous, and never-ending. The International Labour Organization calls it the “worst forms of child labour”— work that includes all forms of slavery and forced or compulsory labour and involves the sale and trafficking of children, is likely to harm the health and safety of children, and prevent children from attending school.

One child, who endured harsh conditions for years while enslaved on a cocoa plantation in Côte d’Ivoire, told journalists, “When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.”

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire produce a combined 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa. In 2008, more than 53 per cent of children on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire, and 46 per cent in Ghana, were involved in the worst forms of child labour. In 2002, 66 per cent of school-aged children working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire were not enrolled in school.

Etienne Babila, from Cameroon, was forced to leave school at age 12, when his parents became ill. He earned $3 per day working on a cocoa plantation, where he suffered snake bites, machete wounds, and exposure to toxic pesticides.

After being sold to a child trafficker by his uncle, 12-year-old Fatao Ouaré, from Burkina Faso, laboured on a cocoa plantation in Ghana for one year without pay. He did not attend school and his mother did not know where he was.

In 2001, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association promised to address the worst forms of child labour in its supply chain through the Harkin-Engel Protoco, l committing, among other things, to “develop and implement…voluntary, industry-wide standards of public certification…that cocoa beans and their derivative products have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor.” After missing the first deadline for product certification in 2005, the association set a second deadline, and a third (2008, 2010 respectively), which it also failed to achieve.

But chocolate manufacturers have succeeded at money-making. Hershey, for example, earned $509 million U.S. in profits in 2011 and in 2009 was able to pay its CEO $8 million U.S. in compensation. Meanwhile, most of the 5,000 cocoa-producing villages in Ghana, and the approximately 3,750 villages in Côte d’Ivoire, still lack running water, electricity, sanitation, schools, and health clinics.

Cocoa certification is possible. According to Tulane University’s Payson Center—hired to monitor the implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol—product certification as practiced for years by Rainforest Alliance, UTZ CERTIFIED, and Fairtrade is viable. It involves ongoing physical inspection of farms to ensure that cocoa is not being produced with the worst forms of child labour. It also guarantees cocoa producers a price for their beans that they can live on.

Many argue that it’s not possible to avoid all products produced through human exploitation.

They’re probably right. But just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something.

Compassionate consumers can influence manufacturers to do the right thing by choosing to purchase fairly-traded and certified products, and urging chocolate manufacturers to live up to their 2001 promise to eliminate the worst forms of child labour from their supply chains.

Searching for ethical products to replace favourite and familiar ones can be inconvenient, but the taste of chocolate produced without the “flesh” of children is a sweet reward.