In the 15th century, Aztec rulers demanded cocoa as “tribute” from the poor farmers and peasants of the Mesoamerican nations they conquered. Fast-forward 600 years and not much has changed. Corporations like Nestlé and Hershey make billions in profit each year from cocoa picked by child slaves in West Africa, particularly Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. State Department estimates put the number of children illegally employed by Cote d’Ivoire cocoa plantations at well over 100 thousand, 10 to 15 thousand of whom are literally enslaved.
Fortunately, the Fair Trade movement is slowly advancing on the chocolate industry. By sourcing certified fair-trade cocoa, chocolate manufacturers ensure that farmers are paid a fair price for their beans, which in turn allows them to pay their laborers a fair wage. Unfortunately, fair-trade chocolate only constitutes about one percent of worldwide chocolate sales.
In 2001, Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) set out to increase the consumption of fair-trade chocolate with a bill requiring manufacturers to label their candy slave-free. But caving to pressure, Harkin and Engel scrapped this legislation in favor of a voluntary protocol that outlined steps the chocolate industry would take to eliminate forced child labor in West Africa by 2005. The oversight body the chocolate industry formed to carry out this protocol is the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF). However, the WCF is little more than a smoke screen intended to conceal the industry’s inaction from concerned consumers and labor rights organizations. According to labor advocacy organization ILRF (International Labor Rights Forum), as of October 2006, “the industry led initiative fails to call for concrete steps to ensure that farmers are getting a fair price for their product, which significantly impacts the use of child labor, as farmers are forced to reduce production costs and rely on the cheap labor of children.” To this day, the goals of the protocol have not been achieved.
In an effort to hold the industry to the commitments it made in the cocoa protocol, the ILRF took legal action against corporate misanthrope Nestlé, the chocolate manufacturer with the strongest documented accounts of sourcing cocoa harvested by child-slaves. According to the ILRF, “These child workers labor for long, punishing hours, using dangerous tools and facing frequent exposure to dangerous pesticides as they travel great distances in the grueling heat. Those who labor as slaves must also suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment.”
Nestlé C.E.O. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe justifies these human rights violations by arguing that free trade is inherently fair. In a speech presented at a 2005 corporate luncheon, he stated: “…these days, you see the label [Fair Trade] on international brands. The implicit message is that normal trade is not fair. Apparently, this implicit message is not a matter of concern for those from mainstream business who use the label to appease some critics. FREE TRADE IS FAIR TRADE.”
This logic is nothing short of delusional given that child slaves pick the cocoa beans. Yet, by virtue of making this argument, Brabeck-Letmathe is admitting that fair trade is the solution to the chocolate industry’s child slavery problem; otherwise he wouldn’t bother to equate free trade with fair trade.
It’s not just Nestlé. The industry-at-large claims that its obligation to offer consumers the most affordable product possible makes a transition to 100 percent Fair Trade out of the question. But based on figures available from the ILRF, approximately 30 million dollars was spent by the chocolate industry and the Federal government between 2001 and 2006 to ineffectively combat the use of child slavery on cocoa plantations (and that’s not counting the money spent since 2006). As consumers and taxpayers, we can be confident that these costs are passed on to us, rendering any savings questionable.
One paladin among the world’s corporate chocolate producers is Cadbury, who transitioned to 100 percent fair trade in Britain at the end of this summer, with a worldwide transition to follow. Cadbury already owns industry fair trade leader Green & Black’s (a line proudly sold here at Willy Street Co-op), so this effort will triple the sales of fair trade chocolate from Ghana.
For my money, the best way to end child slavery is to firmly enforce responsibly drafted legislation mandating that all trade be fair. But in the meantime, consumers can make a difference by purchasing only fair trade certified chocolate. The ILRF publishes a scorecard ranking chocolate companies on their fair trade standing. Willy Street Co-op carries two of the three brands ranked highest: Equal Exchange, which is on sale through October, and Divine. Among those ranked just below these two are Endangered Species, Lindt, and Dagoba, all of which Willy Street Co-op also carries. However, while Dagoba itself gets a positive review, its parent company, Hershey, receives the second lowest score (Nestlé receives the lowest). Another Hershey brand is Scharfen-Berger, which the Co-op also carries.