It is ironic that a delicacy associated with joy, happiness and celebration could have a story of such horror and inhumanity associated to its production. The world has largely grown numb and prefers to conveniently ignore blatant abuse of human rights in different parts of the world, and other than a few organizations raising their voice over the issues, others remain largely indifferent. More or less the same attitude has been adopted over the human rights violation in the Ivory Coast – the largest global producer of cocoa. West Africa and particularly Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) produces 69% of the world’s cocoa used to manufacture chocolate by leading brands.
As shocking as it might seem, slavery still exists – even in the 21st century. Every year over 600, 000 children and females are trafficked each year for slavery and over 15 000 children are working as slaves in 600, 000 cocoa farms along the Ivory Coast in West Africa.
The harvesters of the cocoa are children, some as young as 11 years old, working in slave like conditions for 80 – 100 hours a week at minimum or no wages. These children are often kidnapped from their homes in Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Toco, or sold to the cocoa farmers by their families for a few dollars, after which the children are condemned to a life of slavery and brutally hard work where escape does not seem to be an option. Harvesting of the cocoa beans requires the children to climb trees yielding sharp machetes that they use to hack the pods from the branches and split them to get the beans within.
The arms and legs of the young workers are covered with healed scars and deep wounds due to lacerations from the machetes. The children are then expected to lug the heavy sacks of beans weighing several kilograms on their backs for the fermenting process. Whipping and beating seems to be a part of their lives as the children are severely beaten if they are unable to carry the heavy loads of or fail to put in the required working hours. Like prisoners, the workers are locked in at night in windowless rooms to prevent them from escaping and the ones who do escape and are unfortunate enough to be found are beaten and tortured as an example to the other workers. Studies have revealed that the children have to work with pesticides and chemicals without protective clothing and are at a severe risk of contamination. The children are deprived of any form of education.
Documentaries have been filmed and articles have been published, but the cocoa farms continue to operate in the same appalling and atrocious conditions and adhering to the same forms of brutality unleashed on slaves in heathen times. A UNICEF report in 1998 brought this issue to light and a BBC documentary in 2000 opened the world’s eyes to the horror these children have to undergo. A report published in 2001, A Taste of Slavery, How your Chocolate may be Tainted, confirming the slave-like conditions and children were subjected to. The report was followed by the acknowledgment of the issue by the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association.
However, nothing concrete has been done about the issue because each faction associated with the production of chocolate blames the other for slavery in cocoa production. The Ivory Coast government places the blame on the multinational chocolate manufacturing companies for keeping the cocoa prices low enough for the farmers to resort to slave labour. The cocoa prices need to be increased manifolds to ensure that the farmers can maintain a quality of life for themselves and the workers. Despite the efforts the solutions are slow in coming and remain unimplemented. Buying cocoa at minimal prices enables companies to keep profits up and maintain low costs.
Cocoa exports constitute one-third of the Ivorian economy, which has laid severe dependence of its economy of world cocoa prices. Since cocoa is one of the most unstable product in terms of market prices, the region suffers greatly as a result of fluctuating prices. Droughts and dropping prices of cocoa has pushed the cocoa farmers into lives of poverty and destitute, unable to maintain a quality of life and forced to resort to cheap methods harvesting, including child labour. The price for a pound of cocoa beans has dropped manifolds, contributing to the dark side of cocoa farming.
Most of the children working in these farms come from Mali, a poverty stricken country with a GDP of $850 per capita according to the CIA Factbook. Therefore, people are forced to find work in the neighbouring Ivory Coast. Families require their children to work as contributions from their earnings can enable them to survive. And hence, the families fall prey to traffickers who take advantage of their desperate situation. Consequently, the 40 % to 70 % levels of poverty have denied education the children of these areas, as earning a living takes priority over going to school.
A social and cultural stigma has also contributed towards the issue. Cocoa farmers procure the help of their own children in the harvesting of the cocoa beans and do not see anything wrong in other children working on the farms. Therefore, children doing manual labour is not an unusual sight in African countries. Children between the ages of 5 – 14 years form 40 % – 50 % of the work force in these countries. Since children are normally sent from home to work with the promise of earned wages, the children are sent to the farms on the Ivory Coast that pledge the same commitment. However, farmers have long since diverted from the commitment and several children never return home and are neither paid for their work.
Several global chocolate producers have taken the initiative to only purchase Fair Trade Certified cocoa, the harvesting of which is free from inhumane child labour practices. Fair Trade Certification ensures that sufficient price is paid to the farmers that enable them to a lead a good quality life and are not forced to resort to forced labour to production costs. Cadbury Dairy Milk in the United Kingdom was the first major chocolate brand to adhere to this standard and make all of their chocolate Fair Trade Certified and extended the practice to its factions in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Ben & Jerry’s, Kraft Food and Mars Inc. have also stepped up and begun to purchase cocoa certified by the Rain Forest alliance that is not tainted by the disgrace of slavery.
It is the chocolate producers that hold the power to put a stop to such practices. They need to take responsibility of the farms producing their cocoa and uphold the use of Fair Trade Certification practices.
The velvety texture and explosion of taste produced by a chocolate melting in one’s mouth is an experience many describe as stimulating. However, the experience and the entire chocolate industry remains tainted unless it’s brutal source can be accounted for and rectified.