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Human Rights

Enslaved by Chocolate


The Sinless Pleasure?

Chocolate has long had the reputation as being almost as good as sex. In fact, the most popular of sweets contains chemicals like serotonin that the brain manufactures naturally during sexual arousal (1); undoubtedly why chocolate is the “sinless substitute” for the lonely and broken-hearted.

The chocolate industry has leveraged this neurochemical craving into a multi-billion dollar global industry. Mars, Hershey, Nestlé, Cadbury, Ferrero, Godiva, Lindt – these are names to bring a smile to a child’s face or a sigh of pleasure from a wife or girlfriend.

As long as that child is not West African.

The Continuing Scourge of Slavery

CNN’s Freedom Project broadcast a report on the labor conditions of the cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. Also know as Ivory Coast, this nation produces 40% of the world’s supply of cocoa beans, the primary input in chocolate production. West Africa in total produces 66% of the global supply of beans, with the only major non-Africa producer being Indonesia. (3)

Most of these plantations are quite small, less than 5 acres of cocoa trees in dense equatorial jungle. The farmers are overwhelmingly small proprietors and overwhelmingly poor. They live barely above the absolute poverty level. Côte d’Ivoire’s Ministry of Agriculture runs a cocoa purchasing board, which acts as the principal intermediary between small farmers and the global market. These farmers are therefore price takers who have no ability to affect price.

What they can do, like any American or European businessman will tell you, is to cut costs. The main cost they bear is labor. Clearing jungle and harvesting the bean crop is very labor intensive. Once the nuts have been taken from the trees and dried, the workers have to chop into the hard shell with a machete in order to crack it and extract the cocoa beans. Much of this work is done by children.


These children are not family members. They do not belong to local village families, who share the work and who share the proceeds communally. Many of them are from neighboring countries, like Burkino Faso, where economic conditions are even worse. They work 10 hour days. They receive no pay, other than food and clothing. They are bought and sold for US$200. In short, they are slaves.

Some of the children in the documentary were as young as 10 years old and had never seen the inside of a school.

A Failed Reform Effort

These abuses have existed for decades, but had never drawn the attention of anyone in the West until 2000. That was the year that two US lawmakers became aware of the labor conditions in the West African plantations. Senator Harkin and Representative Engel cosponsored a bill to force certification procedures on the chocolate industry. Chocolate producers would have had to certify that their beans were produced without child labor, an admittedly laborious and difficult to implement proviso given the extremely dispersed nature, small scale and remoteness of cocoa farms throughout West Africa.

The chocolate companies protested through the offices of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. In a typical piece of corporate lobbying, and a fine example of the nefarious effect of corporate largesse on American politics, the chocolate industry was able to defeat the introduction of the bill by promising to implement a voluntary agreement to achieve the same goal.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed in 2001, with the goal to end forced child labor in chocolate by 2005. That deadline had to be extended to 2008, and again to 2010. It is now 2012 and the practices continue.

Finger Pointing

The chocolate companies are right when they say that they are not responsible for the use of slave labor. True enough – it is the extreme poverty in West Africa and the specific requirements of running a cocoa plantation that create the incentives for the use of child slave labor.

But from that basis to argue that those derive billions of dollars per year in revenues from the product of that slave labor have no responsibility whatsoever to ending it, that is – at best – an inhuman degree of callousness, and – at worst – criminal negligence. Slavery is legally prohibited in every country on earth.

The chocolate companies also argue that they have instituted Fair Trade practices, similar to those that the coffee industry put in place a decade ago after a similar outcry. And yet the empirical evidence is that these measures are not working. Much more needs to be done.

Who should do it? The chocolate companies say that it is the responsibility of the local governments. The local governments say that they are trying, but they need the chocolate companies to help them financially. There is a lot to be said for this argument. Let’s compare the GDP of Côte d’Ivoire with the gross revenues of five of the largest global chocolate companies:

This simple comparison shows rather plainly that the chocolate companies have the financial wherewithal to be major drivers of change in these impoverished countries. Bear in mind that Côte d’Ivoire is the wealthiest of the West African nations.

The chart also shows why nothing much is getting done – the companies have such enormous leverage over the local governments that officials are not willing to challenge them.

Power Play

The only other player with the power to affect change is the consumer.  That’s you and that’s me.

What can we do? Find out about which companies and brands truly practice what they preach in terms of Fair Trade practices. There are plenty of companies that do. They buy direct from farmers. They pay above market rates for beans. They certify that no child labor was used at any point in the process of supplying the beans. They sell pretty damn good chocolate too.

I’ve included a list at the end of this article with some chocolate companies that profess to adhere to the highest ethical and moral standards in chocolate sourcing and production. THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT. I have not done research on all of these companies. Nor is it an indictment of any company which is not on the list!!! I merely provide the list in order to encourage each of you to start questioning where your chocolate is coming from and to start doing some research.

Twenty years ago, the coffee industry said they would be ruined by introducing Fair Trade prices and practices. Twenty years later, the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the coffee industry is precisely those niche companies that practice Fair Trade. Even the largest coffee companies have been forced to move in this direction thanks to the adherence of multinationals like Starbucks.

All of this change was achieved exclusively by consumer action, linked to some smart businessmen who saw how they could profit from this demand for change. The chocolate industry will bow to the same pressure and discover the same truth – money can be made even with ethical business practices.

So as a concerned consumer, you can do the following:

(1)    Inform yourself. Find out if your favorite brand of chocolate practices Fair Trade standards and certifies their product as free of child labor;

(2)    Find alternatives in case they don’t. There are plenty of chocolate companies out there who do certify their product and you may find out you’ve been missing out on some great craft chocolate;

(3)    Write to the companies. Believe me, Investor Relations takes these letters seriously.

(4)    Write to your legislators. Depending where you live, you should write to your member of Congress, Parliament, Diet or whatever to express your outrage that these conditions are allowed to persist.

(5)    Stop buying uncertified chocolate. At the end of the day, this is the only truly effective means of effecting change. When sales fall, the chocolate companies will turn on a dime.

No one in America today would wear a shirt made from cotton picked by an African slave. Why are we content to eat chocolate picked by an African slave? The fact that they remain in Africa or that there masters are black instead of white is utterly irrelevant.

Please stop and think about this. Ultimately, we are as responsible as the chocolate companies in perpetuating these repugnant conditions so long as we do nothing about it.

List of Chocolate Companies purportedly practicing Fair Trade and certification


(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_effects_of_chocolate
(2) http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/
(3) International Agricultural Association data, 2011 projections

World Cocoa Production

thousands of tonnes

% of total

Côte d’Ivoire



























Papua New Guinea



Dominican Rep.



















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