Sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, a sprinkling of additives, and… child labour?
That’s the hidden ingredient in mass-produced, commodity chocolate they don’t tell you about. That’s the secret to cheap chocolate.
Around 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from two nations in West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Whole communities in these regions are dedicated to growing this commodity crop for their livelihood: 60% of Cote d’Ivoire’s revenue comes from cocoa exports.
The cocoa here is sold to a majority of chocolate companies, including the ‘Big Five’ (Cadbury, Ferrero, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé) that dominate the production of chocolate. As the chocolate industry grew over the years, companies raced to source cocoa for the lowest possible prices, trapping the inhabitants in a vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.
Child Labour on Farms
The chocolate industry earns around $100 billion in annual profits, yet the majority of farmers don’t even see a tiny fraction of this figure.
The inequality in the supply chain is staggering; according to the Fairtrade Foundation, farmers that grow the crops only receive about 6% of the revenue, compared to 44% for retailers and 35% for manufacturers.
The average daily income per farm is approximately $2.70, an amount that has to be divided amongst all the workers. To keep their prices competitive, farmers often turn to using child labour.
Low prices in the cocoa industry have left smallholder farmers with low incomes and with no choice but to take their children out of school and have them help on the farm.
For other children, the situation is much dire.
They are kidnapped, sold into enslavement by their families, or trafficked from poorer regions like Mali and Burkina Faso. Traffickers take advantage of the poverty and economic desperation of families, enticing them with false promises of great opportunities.
These children are exploited by farmers, who force them to perform long, dangerous labour, sometimes beating and threatening those who attempt to escape.
Sweet Nothings from Big Chocolate
Back in September 2001, eight big brands including Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey signed the ‘Harkin Engel Protocol’ to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in cocoa growing.
They agreed to eradicate 70% of the worst forms of child labour by 2020; a deadline they have missed.
They also missed interim targets in 2005, 2010 and 2015, yet the large chocolate companies insist they condemn child labour, pointing to their various programs to improve the conditions of cocoa production.
Campaigners, however, say these programs have made little impact, and that it’s too little, too late.
Research from NORC (National Opinion Research Centre) at the University of Chicago in 2020 reported that 43% of all children aged between 5 and 17 in these two countries work on cocoa farms. Instead of reducing, the overall proportion of children working on farms has actually increased by 14% in the last decade.
In total, an estimated 1.56 million children are involved in hazardous work: using sharp machetes to hack open pods, carrying heavy loads, undertaking land clearing, and being exposed to agrochemical products.
Two decades after child workers became an international issue, it seems far from being solved.
Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled that Nestlé and Cargill can’t be sued for child slavery on African farms from where they buy their cocoa. Six Malian men alleged that they were trafficked to cacao farms in Cote d’Ivoire and forced to work for 12-14 a day, with no pay beyond basic food.
The court ruled 8-1 that the companies were not legally liable for what had happened because the abuse happened outside of the U.S.
‘Big Chocolate’ continues to avoid corporate accountability, perpetuating institutionalised poverty in these nations.
Raise the Bar!
What is a sweet treat for us is a bitter reality for millions of children labouring to provide these products at low prices.
For change to happen, we, as consumers, need to hold companies accountable.
We need to stop buying from companies that continue to exploit their workers.
To create great craft chocolate, makers have to work directly with farmers over the long term. They realise, and seek to persuade us consumers, that farmers need to be encouraged to grow fine beans; not just as many beans as possible for as low a price as possible.
At Cocoa Runners, we seek transparency and always tell you both about the maker and the farmer for all our bars.