The Darker Side of Chocolate

When I say the word “Easter” what’s the first thing that pops into your head?

Now, I hope you thought about Jesus. Something along the lines of resurrection, new life, forgiveness, redemption, restoration—congratulations, you were paying attention last year. Maybe you thought about the Easter Bunny—it’s okay, someone has to make the rest of us feel spiritual. Or maybe you didn’t think about anything because you were too busy inhaling a bag of Cadbury eggs, you know, the ones with the crunchy sugar shell? Or was it the milk chocolate ones filled with that orange-white swirly cream? Or maybe it was Reese’s?

For many of us, Easter and chocolate are inseparably intertwined, but how much do we know about this Easter tradition? Do we know what we’re putting in our kid’s Easter baskets or stuffing in colored eggs? When we fill our carts with Cadbury, Hershey, and Nestlé, do we actually know what we’re paying for?

A Not-So-Sweet Industry

It’s estimated that the average American eats over 11 pounds, or about 120 bars, of chocolate a year. And we wonder why we have an obesity problem.

All that chocolate has to come from somewhere, but your average chocolate bar starts out far from the gas station shelf. Most chocolate is grown on independently owned plantations in West Africa. The Ivory Coast alone provides for over 40 percent of the world’s supply of cocoa beans, and demand is growing.

There are huge profits to be made in the chocolate industry. Sweet sales are estimated to garner $70 billion each year, but most West African cocoa farmers never see those profits. Cocoa is a complex, multi-level industry involving traders, processors, exporters, and manufacturers, and at each stage of production, someone wants a share of the profits. At the bottom of this food chain is the cocoa farmer, and in order for the system to work, the farmer is the one who pays.  While Hershey’s CEO, David J. West, makes $8 million a year, the average cocoa farmer earns $2 a day.

We put in too much effort for how much we’re compensated…[we] cocoa farmers work for nothing.

François Ekra, cocoa farmer

Cutting Corners

As inflation drives the price of cocoa lower and lower, many farmers are finding other ways to make ends meet. In West Africa, hundreds of thousands of children are forced to work on cocoa farms in terrible conditions for little or no pay.

Most children working on cocoa farms are 12 to 16 years old, but some begin working as young as 5. The typical workday begins at 6 AM and continues into the evening. Some children use chainsaws to clear the forests. Others use machetes to pry open cocoa pods, often cutting their hands and arms with the sharp blades. Many haul sacks of cocoa beans weighing over 100 pounds. Cocoa farms are plagued by insects, and children as young as 10 are required to spray the trees with insecticides, often without wearing any protective gear.

Farm owners feed child workers the cheapest food available, usually bananas and corn paste. On some farms, children sleep on wooden planks in windowless buildings without access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms. On farms in West Africa, 10 to 40 percent of child workers do not attend school.

The Secret Ingredient

Every research study ever conducted in [Western Africa] shows that there is human trafficking going on, particularly in the Ivory Coast.

Abby Mills, International Labor Organization

Poverty is a way of life in West Africa, and most children begin working to support their families at a young age. Traffickers exploit this vulnerability by selling these children as slaves to desperate cocoa farmers. Some children begin working on cocoa farms because traffickers tell them the job pays well. Others are sold to traffickers or farm owners by their families, who are often unaware of the dangerous working conditions. In countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali, children are abducted from their homes and sold to plantation owners in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Most cases of slavery involve physical violence. Children are whipped for working too slow or trying to escape. Reporters have found cases where workers were locked in buildings at night to prevent them from escaping.

The beatings were a part of my life. Anytime they loaded you with bags (of cocoa beans) and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again.

Aly Diabate, former slave

Brian Woods, who makes films about human rights abuses, tells of meeting Drissa, a young man from Mali who’d been forced to work on a cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast.

When Drissa took his shirt off, I had never seen anything like it. I had seen some pretty nasty things in my time but this was appalling. There wasn’t an inch of his body which wasn’t scarred.

Brian Woods

Drissa worked with cocoa for years, and yet he had never tasted chocolate. When a reporter asked Drissa what he would tell people who eat chocolate made with slave labor, he said that these people were enjoying something he had suffered to make.

When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.

Drissa, former slave

Righting the Wrongs

The cocoa industry has agreed to take steps to eliminate what the International Labor Organization calls “the worst forms of child labor.” This is defined as practices:

“Likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children” and include the use of “hazardous tools” and any work that “interferes with schooling.” Approximately 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst forms of child labor on cocoa farms. 

Food Empowerment Project

However, little progress has been made to end child labor in the cocoa industry of West Africa. Buying cocoa from farms that use abusive labor tactics keeps costs low for corporate giants like Hershey. In 2010, the company reported a $54 million increase in profits from what it calls, “improved supply-chain efficiencies.” While other companies move to improve their business practices, Hershey has done nothing.

Many of the largest global chocolate corporations are increasingly sourcing cocoa beans that have been certified by independent organizations to meet various labor, social and environment standards. But there has been one major exception to this trend: the Hershey Company.

‘Time to Raise the Bar’ Report

While other large companies publicly identify where they get their cocoa from, Hershey does not. Other companies allow third-parties to certify cocoa that comes from West Africa, but not Hershey. Cadbury UK was the first company to make all of its chocolate Fair Trade Certified, extending its top-selling Dairy Milk Bar to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland. Ben and Jerry’s has not only pledged to switch to all Fair Trade Certified cocoa by 2013, but has also promised to use only Fair Trade for all other ingredients that are eligible for the certification. Even Kraft Foods and Mars Inc. have begun to use cocoa certified by the Rainforest Alliance as free from forced labor, child labor, or discrimination.

And Hershey? Not a chance.

What to Buy

At this point, I hope you’re ready to lay siege to Hershey, Pennsylvania. But before we start sharpening our pitchforks, lets take a look at the companies that are taking steps to eliminate unjust labor practices in the cocoa industry.

While chocolate with Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance Certification is not guaranteed to be forced or child labor free, these companies are more likely to use fair labor practices. Also, chocolate grown in South America is less likely to be made by slaves than chocolate grown in West Africa, although unfair labor practices undoubtedly still occur.

To make your Easter shopping a little easier, I’ve combined the recommendations of The Food Empowerment Project, the Huffington Post, and Free2Work into a list of what to buy this holiday season as well as a list of brands to avoid. Click on Fight for Better’s Chocolate List to download a printable copy. Keep in mind that some of the products on the buy list are recommended by one source but not another. In addition, there are brands on the avoid list that are making strides to eliminate child labor from their supply chain but haven’t yet made enough progress to warrant recommendation. If you want a more extensive list, check out the Food Empowerment Project. You can even download their app of recommended products from the App Store.

Keeping Easter Sweet

Easter is a celebration of freedom—freedom from the power of sin and death through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—but how many of us are supporting slavery with the products we buy?

In West Africa, hundreds of thousands of children are working to make the chocolate we eat without a second thought. So, the next time you reach for that bag of Hershey’s kisses or Cadbury eggs, think about Aly and Drissa. Think about the cocoa farmer, supporting his family on $2 a day. Think about 10 year old children spraying cocoa plants with industrial chemicals.

Please, next time you buy chocolate, stop long enough to think twice.

Did you know about the use of child labor in the cocoa industry? Are you inspired to change your buying habits? Do you know of any chocolate brands that employ safe labor practices? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Author Details

Bryanna Lindberg

Today, billions of people are living in slavery. Some are trapped in physical slavery—sold as prostitutes, laborers, or soldiers. Others are trapped in psychological slavery—controlled by ignorance, fear, or pride. Too many are trapped in spiritual slavery—trying to please a god who demands nothing less than perfection. As Christians, we've been set free from the law of sin and death, but how many of us are living free? Pursuing freedom is a fight, but the victory means living a better calling, telling a better story, and leaving a better testimony. Will you join me in the fight for better?

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