In 2001, some of the world’s biggest chocolate companies, including Mars, Hershey, and Nestlé, pledged to eradicate child labor.
A huge and vital new investigation from the Washington Post finds that, far from ending child labor in the chocolate industry within a few years, child labor remains a huge part of the supply chain. And the chocolate companies are not doing nearly enough to stop it.
Côte d’Ivoire—the government of the country has long protested the translation to the Ivory Coast—is by far the world’s largest producer of cacao, the raw material used to make chocolate. The Washington Post went there to find out how the chocolate industry was doing on its promise, made back in 2001, to end child labor in the supply chain by 2005.
In 2001, following a BBC documentary and public outrage, the big chocolate companies, along with the ambassador of Côte d’Ivoire, signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol. This was an agreement to end “the worst forms of child labor” and “forced labor,” according to specific definitions from the International Labour Organization, in the chocolate industry.
But the agreement was toothless from the start, overly ambitious (child labor was supposed to end entirely by 2005) and underpowered. The agreement was not legally binding, and the chocolate companies were largely left to self-regulate. The companies put as little money as possible into pilot programs and investigations, and did their best to wriggle their way out of making any concrete changes.
In one particularly galling example, the original 2001 agreement called on the companies to “develop and implement industry-wide standards of public certification that cocoa has been grown without any of the worst forms of child labor.” This, obviously, means that there should be a label. From the Post: “Instead, the industry said, the agreement meant that the companies would produce statistics on West African ‘labor conditions’ and ‘the levels’ of child labor in West Africa.”
The Post found dozens of examples of children, some as young as 10, who are sometimes purchased, bussed across borders to chocolate farms, and worked, without school, for under a dollar per day.
The story goes deep. Despite increasing pledges to source some sort of certified chocolate, from Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance, those certifications are limited and not particularly trustworthy. Inspections are known ahead of time, infrequent, and only occur for a fraction of farms; farmers will simply send kids away for inspection day, and claim they were never there.
There are plenty of possible solutions, but they all cost money, which the chocolate industry has been singularly unwilling to pay. Chocolate should quite simply cost a lot more; more money going to farmers would reduce the economic pressures that lead to insanely cheap labor in the form of children. The industry, which earns about $103 billion per year, could contribute to policing and social work efforts in West Africa instead of saying that they need assistance from countries like Côte d’Ivoire, which has an annual GDP of $40 billion.
It can be difficult, with more and more information, to feel comfortable buying food at all; it seems as though every single thing we buy has a booby-trapped chain, full of human rights violations. But chocolate is a purely luxury item, inessential in a way that even coffee isn’t. This story shouldn’t make you feel guilty; it should make you feel outraged. It should make you refuse to pay a dollar for a candy bar.