Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”, reading this, slavery seems to be a thing of the past, one of the worst chapters in the already bad chapter of the colonial history of European countries. Nevertheless, Amnesty International estimates that there are still millions of victims of modern slavery around the world. As the lines get blurrier with increasingly complex supply chains for everyday products, slavery might be part of the most innocent products, making the consumers complicit in slavery and child labor. One of the prime examples of this issue? Chocolate and the supply chain of cocoa beans.
Everybody loves chocolate. Might it be bars or pralines, cake or cookies, milkshake or hot cocoa, chocolate is undoubtedly the world’s favorite fix for its sweet tooth. According to Forbes the per capita consumption of chocolate in the Netherlands is 10.4 lbs per year making it the worlds eight biggest chocolate consumer.
Once a cultural and consumptive use for Mesoamerica where the cacao tree originates, Europe’s obsession with chocolate was complemented with a thriving slave trade in the colonization periods of early 17th and 18th century. The most famous chocolate brands of today Lindt, Hershey’s, Cadbury and Nestle emerged in the later half of the 19th century where the conditions of workers on the plantations were more than dubious. But what about today, has the chocolate industry managed to put behind its bitter past?
Nowadays the majority of the world’s cocoa is no longer produced in the Mesoamerican region but in West Africa with Cote´d Ivoire being its largest producer with Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon following suit. Though chocolate demand is high the chocolate market is increasingly difficult for farmers. One of the reasons is the dependency on exports and the volatility of the world market where the price of chocolate can jump and fall quickly at the expense of farmers and farmers resort to drastic measures to stay in business: slavery, child labour and participation in human trafficking. Around 20% of all cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast use slave labour practices involving adults and children. And who do these farmers in West Africa supply? Hershey’s, Mars and Néstle thus bringing modern slavery in your everyday supermarket.
Eleven years ago Teu van de Keuken an investigative reporter made the same realization when he launched an investigation about the usage of slavery in the cocoa industry. After failing to be taken seriously by the world´s most successful chocolate makers he took measures in his own hands: Eating multiple chocolate bars and turning himself in to the authorities. The charge? Complicity in slavery. However the authorities refused to prosecute. Then in 2005 Tony’s Chocolonely was born with its first batch of 5000 bars completely slave free and fair trade, there to lead by example. And the company is growing rapidly exceeding its 4,5% market share of Chocolate in the Netherlands and preparing for its expansion to the US in 2015.
And the big chocolate producers? Though, for example Nestle´s code of conduct prohibits the use of child labour in it supply chain reports of child labour on farms on the Ivory Coast where Nestle receives its beans from continue to surface. The information campaign by Nestle to enforce its code of conduct with its farmers proves to be unsuccessful. Cadbury on the other hand, one of the biggest chocolate producers in the UK, lead by good example being the first in making all of its chocolate fair trade in 2009. Other major brands like Hershey´s are still lagging behind.
Two lawsuits were filed this year in Massachusetts against Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle´s through their “failure of taking action” as well as “slow progress” proving that the fight against slavery in the confectioners is far from over.
So what is failing the efforts taken up by the big chocolate producers to eliminate child labour and slavery from their supply chain?
Two things are essential to the problem. Firstly for the big cooperations their immense production of chocolate products calls for a big supply of raw ingredients from thousands of small farmers, whose individual working conditions are difficult to oversee and control, giving these companies plausible deniability for their inaction.
The second biggest problem for cocoa producers is independent of their big Western buyers: the economics of the cocoa bean world market The volatility of the cocoa price proves to be a big challenge for the farmers whose livelihood depends on it, pushing them into cost saving actions such as slavery and child labor. The cause is lack of control as well as price manipulation by large hedge funds counting on large quick returns on short term investments. This makes farmers not only the victims of the chronic underinvestment of their own country but also the victim of greedy businessmen at the stock market.
In conclusion, the solution for chocolate’s slavery problem proves to be twofold: On the one hand the responsibility of the big chocolate producers to support the communities of their cocoa producing farms as well as improving their accountability regarding their supply chain. And on the other hand, implementing restrictions and regulation on the cocoa bean world market decreasing its volatility and thus ensuring a more stable price for the farmers.
So next time when you go to the supermarket, ask yourself, is the cheap bar of chocolate worth becoming complicit in slavery and child labour, as Teu van Keuken wanted to demonstrate when he turned himself in, and maybe buy that fairtrade chocolate instead.