yes, child labor exists in the chocolate industry.. still
It’s probably alarming to read the words “child labor in the chocolate industry”, especially if you hadn’t heard about these problems before. It was shocking the late 1990s and early 2000s when UNICEF, the BBC, and the United States Department of State and more started sounding the alarm that forced labor from thousands of exploited children was being used on commercial cocoa farms in West Africa. Now, it’s shocking to hear that this was the case 20 years ago, and maybe even more shocking to hear that these are still problems the cocoa industry faces now.
Two decades, and a lot of chocolate, later the cocoa industry still has the same problems that shocked the world in the 90’s and 2000’s. The world’s largest chocolate manufacturers have pledged – and failed – to eliminate child labor from their cocoa supply chains on several occasions, and the documented instances of human rights violations in cocoa production continue to grow.
How did we get here? And what do we do next? In this article, we’ll tell you more about child labor in the chocolate industry – and our mission to make 100% exploitation-free the norm in chocolate.
Child labor today
When the world thinks of chocolate, they frequently think of Europe – of countries like Switzerland, or Belgium or our home country of the Netherlands, all of which have made a name for themselves by producing luxury, high-quality chocolates. The reality, however, is that 60% of the world’s cocoa beans originate in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and over 2 million West African children work to produce them.
The circumstances vary for each child laborer, though child labor today doesn’t look much different than it did twenty years ago. While some children live and work on family farms doing mostly harmless tasks you can think of as chores, the reality is that many are trafficked from neighboring West African nations to live and work in cocoa fields far away from their families. In the most dangerous cases, children are responsible for spraying hazardous chemical pesticides without protective clothing, lifting heavy loads in intense heat, or wielding knives, machetes, and other sharp objects when breaking cocoa pods. To learn more about what child labor on cocoa farms looks like, you can hear it from individuals who have experienced it first hand in Bitter stories, or read about one Washington Post journalists account in the article Cocoa’s Child Laborers.
What does ‘forced labor’ mean?
When we talk about ‘forced labor,’ we’re referring to any form of forced labor or systematic exploitation of adults or children, that’ the definition that’s used by the International Labor Organization and The Global Slavery Index. And yes, it’s different from transatlantic slavery. While transatlantic slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the exploitation of human labor remains a very grim reality in many parts of the world. A 2018 study by the Global Slavery Index confirmed that at least 30,000 people in Ghana and Ivory Coast remain victims of forced labor in the cocoa industry alone.
Why does child labor and forced labor continue to plague the chocolate industry?
Forced labor, illegal child labor, and extreme poverty are symptoms of an even larger, more complex underlying issue: the economic model of the cocoa industry is driven by profit maximization. Millions of West African farmers produce cocoa beans, but just a handful of Western chocolate companies turn those cocoa beans into the chocolate enjoyed by billions of consumers worldwide.
Cocoa farmers are caught in a poverty trap. The handful of companies in the middle of the cocoa supply chain have caused the going price of cocoa beans to remain low in order to make as much profit as they can. But that means cocoa farmers earn too little from their cocoa beans to live a good standard of life. Additionally, many farms lack the equipment and infrastructure necessary to improve their productivity, resulting in farmers cutting production prices wherever they can to improve their own profit margins. The search for cheap labor results in poverty and, in extreme cases, resorting to the use illegal child labor and forced labor.
Are there child labor laws?
Yes, absolutely. You might even know of a few in your country. Generally, child labor laws set a standard age at which a person can start working and can even outline what kind of hours they can work. Child labor is also illegal in Ghana and Ivory Coast, where approximately 60% of the world’s cocoa is sourced, which is among the many reasons it needs to stop.
At Tony’s, we also stood up to support a Dutch child labor due diligence law in 2019. Luckily, the law was passed, which means that companies in the Netherlands now need to take responsibility for child labor in their supply chains. That’s one big step! But it definitely shouldn’t stop there, which is why we wrote an open letter to Congress that can be easily sent by any choco fan (even you!), and continue to support the push for due dilligence legislation on a global scale.
Is exploitation-free chocolate possible?
Yes! At Tony’s Chocolonely, we believe it can be done, and we don't want to be the only ones pursuing that goal – our mission is to make 100% exploitation free chocolate an industry norm. We call the way to forced labor-free and child labor free chocolate the five rules of the game, and we’ve made it easy to replicate. We actively encourage other chocolate producers around the world to follow in our footsteps by raising awareness, leading by example, and inspiring others to act and provide them with information on how to do it through Tony’s Open Chain.
Traceable Beans: All of Tony’s beans are fully traceable, meaning that we’re able to guarantee that the beans in our bars come from one of our partner cooperatives and that the right amounts are coming from each cooperative too. After all, you can only take responsibility for the conditions your cocoa beans were grown under when you know where they came from.
A Higher Price: We pay an additional premium for our cocoa so that our partner farmers can earn a livable wage. It’s not charity, it’s just a fair price.
Strong Farmers: We invest in the cooperatives we work with and work to make them stronger through educational workshops, professional development programs, and personalized support systems. Oh, and did we mention that we think cocoa cooperatives are pretty great? When farmers work together in a cooperative, they have better bargaining power and can better professionalize, so it’s the way to go.
The Long Term: We work with our partner cooperatives for at least five years, that way we can create supportive conditions in the cocoa communities to tackle the tough problems together. Not to mention, when farmers know they will be making money on their beans for at least five years instead of selling them season to season, they can start to make important investments on their farms.
Improved Productivity & Less Dependency on Cocoa: Did you know that most cocoa trees don’t produce as much cocoa as they could? Training farmers better farming practices can increase productivity on their farms, and more beans means more income! Without having to buy more land and wait years for new cocoa tress to bear fruit too. And while it might sound odd, we encourage our farmer partners to diversify their crops, or in other words, don’t just grow cocoa. The price of cocoa fluctuates often, and if the price drop, that means farmers might suddenly be unable to feed themselves or their families. Having another income source, like raising chickens or growing different kinds of foods, means there’s something to fall back on.
How can Tony’s guarantee ethical chocolate?
This is the tricky part. We have asked (and paid) outside organizations to hold us accountable. An audit from the Walk Free Foundation and Tulane University of our supply chain found no cases of forced labor at any of our partner cooperatives. That’s great news because it means that what we’re doing is working.
That being said, the same studies also check for child labor in our supply chains. Between 2017, when we started these screenings, and 2019, we’ve found 527 cases of child labor throughout the Tony’s supply chain. And that number has actually been increasing by the year (we report it in our annual FAIR reports). But don’t panic yet, we actually see a silver lining there. We expected to see a few cases of child labor throughout the supply chain – after all, the line between child labor and child work can be fuzzy for some West African cocoa farmers. Plus, it takes a whole lot of trust and responsibility to admit to those kinds of issues. Think about it, when was the last time you admitted to doing something wrong? Having the level of trust between our farmer partners and Tony’s to openly talk about and address these issues is really the first step towards solving them.
Additionally, we’ve implemented the Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System – or CLMRS – with all of our partner cooperatives in Ghana and Ivory Coast. The International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) and Nestle developed CLMRS to help cooperatives identify existing instances of illegal child labor, find alternative labor solutions, and prevent the use of illegal child labor again in the future.
Want to learn more?
Tony’s Chocolonely has been championing exploitation-free chocolate for over 15 years, but we know that lots of folks are still new to our mission, vision, and values. If you’re interested in learning more about the steps we’re taking to eradicate forced labor and illegal child labor in the chocolate industry, check out the links below to find out!