Thursday, February 14, 2013

Chocolate--Edible Happiness at What Price?

Chocolate--Edible Happiness at What Price?

Chocolate and Valentine’s day go hand in hand, whether you receive it from a lover or are raiding the bargain bin on February 15th.  Being that our most popular post is last year’s The Costs of a Rose where we destroyed many people’s love of giving flowers, this year we’re gonna follow tradition and focus on the other common token of love: chocolate.

After last year's post I would have thought these would be better than real roses...
I’m sure most people know by now that there is child labor involved in cacao production.  When discussing the makings of this post with others I had a few people tell me it’s OK because the children were making a lot for their country, they were supporting their family and it’s part of their culture....let me burst your bubble: That’s bull.  It’s things we tell ourselves to make us feel better about exploitation. Let me break down some of the myths.

Child labor is a rather vague term, what exactly does it entail in regards to cacao?  

Children on cacao plantations are sometimes bought and paid for.  In the Ivory Coast (the country Cote d’Ivoire) where 40% of the world’s chocolate is sourced, 109,000 children are reportedly employed on the farms, 10,000-15,000 of which are thought to be victims of trafficking, particularly boys from neighboring Mali. These children between 12 and 16 are tricked into going along with the slave traders--their family usually does not see any money. The cacao industry is responsible for what the International Labor Organization describes as “the worst forms of child labor.”

Children are forced to work long grueling hours (the average is 12 hours). The cacao trees require heavy applications of pesticides and fungicides. Many of these pesticides are illegal in the US due to the health implications, particularly in the workers.  These young and inexperienced children apply these dangerous chemicals without safety equipment and with minimal training standards.  The pods themselves are harvested with use of machetes.  Many of the employed children are under 14 and do not have the skill necessary to do so without injury--many have lacerations on their legs where they missed with the machete.  The children travel long distances to and from the trees, young children carry heavy sacks of cocoa beans for processing. Hernias and similar injuries are common. On one farm, the sacks measured 13 pounds and left welts where they were carried on the young child’s frame.  For those children working on their family farms, only 33% of those working on cacao farms have access to school compared to 70% of children in the same demographic not working on the farms.

While children were normally employed in agricultural labor, the extent and risks have changed over the years.  The production levels have changed as has the worth of the product--as cacao has become more cheaply sourced there has been stronger and stronger reliance on slave labor.

Oh Hershey's, you couldn't just stop at slave labor on the farms...
Sadly, the abuses don’t end at the supply chain.  They are also domestic as well. Hershey, the number one source of chocolate in the US by far, runs its factories with an unusual form of labor.  See, they work with Pennsylvania state and CETUSA to source employees from overseas through cultural exchange programs.  These young men and women pay over $5,000 to come to the US legally in what is described as a cultural exchange where they can travel, experience work in the US and immerse themselves in our culture. What they get for that money is brutal factory work and a system designed to cheat them out of every dime while holding the idea of being deported over their head as a threat.  The New York Times has done a series of exposes after the students involved staged a protest of the inhumane conditions they were subjected to.  Auditing by the Occupational Safety and Health administration revealed 42 serious injuries that had occured at the PA plant over 4 years that hadn’t been reported. They also found that there was willful neglect to provide basic ergonomic and safety protections requested by the employees.  Long shifts along factory lines lifting box after box weighing over 60 pounds is pretty standard. Supervisors are documented as being abusive to employees. They make $8.35 an hour but most of their paychecks are automatically deducted for housing and “program fees.”  The housing is mandatory, but the rent deducted is far beyond what is standard for the area and the conditions are minimal.  They are replacing American labor that used to be paid far higher wages due to the skill and physical strain involved.  This is how we represent America to starry-eyed students from other countries: a place to pay to be exploited.  Absolutely shameful.

It’s important to note that chocolate was fairly under the radar until about 2000, when BBC produced a documentary called “The Bitter Truth” describing the harsh conditions for child laborers on West African cacao plantations. Naturally industry reaction was to call the whole thing hogwash.  Mars Inc in particular was targeted in the early 2000s  for sourcing much of their chocolate from the Ivory coast,though Nestle and Hershey’s were equally at fault.  In 2001 the response from the industry was to establish the Harken-Engel protocol (also called the Cocoa Protocol) which established ways of ridding the industry from the child safety violations. Supposedly this was supposed to occur by 2005 but there has been no measurable progress. Last november, Hershey was sued for the continued use of child labor in its supply chain.  

Both put up a big fight but in the past couple years have announced that they would be changing their system and switching to Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certified products, Mars by the year 2020 and Hershey’s by 2017.

Not perfect, but better than no chocolate?
No certification system is perfect but the strongest one right now is Fair Trade, which has stricter standards than other systems commonly used such as Rainforest Alliance.  RA requires only that 80% of it’s guidelines are followed with a 50% complacency per category and only 30% of the product has to be sourced from a qualifying place to bear the label--something many critics point out leads to corporations doing the bare minimum and “greenwashing” products so that consumers have difficulty telling a truly fair product from a substandard one.  Fair Trade has much stricter standards for labor and also provides a price system in place that better ensures the protection of farmers from volatile markets. That said, there have been abuses documented, Fair Trade has had to drop some suppliers found to be dishonest before.  The second best way to avoid child labor is to buy single-source chocolate, preferably certified from South American farms.  Here is a list of chocolate companies that are certified by Fair Trade USA.

I’ve only provided a very basic overview here, there is a lot of fascinating information on this subject, for example the 2004 murder of a journalist reporting on the state of farms in West Africa, as well as the government detention of three more journalists. Also, did you know that by 2025 global warming may destroy a significant portion of the world’s cacao trees?  It’s possible chocolate will be in real danger by 2050.  More information on the subject of chocolate:
A short ebook on the role of children on Nigerian Cacao farms 2001
The Cocoa Campaign from the International Labor Rights Forum
Wikipedia on Fair Trade (complete with criticisms)
Intern Nation (has a chapter on the Hershey Factory International Program) which goes into detail about the difficulties of labling.
Ted Case Study from 2001 on child labor in west africa that includes a lot of resources.  Very recent documentary from 2012 watchable at

Photos are open-use stock from Morguefile.

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