Slavery and Chocolate: Some Not-So-Sweet Truths

Every Valentine’s Day, Easter, birthday, and Christmas, many of us in the United States like to give chocolate to friends and/or family. Most of us look forward to getting that sweet goodness during those times of year.

For better or for worse, I’m about to sour that sweetness because of some ugly truths about slavery and chocolate.

Namely, there is a good chance that the chocolate you eat was made by slaves. But not just any slaves. Child labor.

A variety of sources have widely reported on how the three major American chocolate manufacturers—Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars (the makers of M&Ms)—all produce chocolate made with child labor. It has been a persistent problem, and a problem that isn’t getting resolved quickly.

Fortune Magazine best describes this problem in an article they wrote about the issue:
“The major chocolate companies—from Mars to Nestlé to Hershey—are heavily reliant on these countries for their cocoa supply. Most of the cocoa is produced on small farms by farmers living in extreme poverty. That poverty often leads to child labor. In 2001, after persistent media reports about child labor abuses and trafficking stirred outrage, the chocolate industry pledged to end the practices in Ivory Coast and Ghana by 2005. But progress has been slow.”

To give context on just how slow the progress has been, the article said that the industry made the pledge to end child labor by 2005. Fortune wrote this in 2016. Yes, you heard it: twenty freaking sixteen, eleven years after these companies promised to get their acts straight.

These companies, among others, have repeatedly broken their promises to end these practices. This is unacceptable.

But what can we, as regular people, do to end these practices? Especially if we don’t have the power to singlehandedly end these practices of child labor?

We must start by voting with our wallets, by refusing to buy chocolate that is made with child labor. I know it is tempting to buy those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Nestlé Crunch when you’re about to check out at the grocery store or drug store, but we should do all that we can to resist this temptation. Even if just one of us refuses to buy chocolate made by slaves, that one person is taking is taking an important moral stand. But if millions of us take that stand, we can hurt the profits of these companies until such point that they hopefully turn their backs on child labor.

But that’s not the only thing we can do. If you are a restaurateur or a college that owns and operates your own dining services, you can refuse to use products in your food from chocolate companies that use child labor. If you are an educator, educate yourself and your students on the fact that slavery still exists and helps produce some of the food we eat. If you invest in stocks, refuse to invest in companies such as Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé—if people sell stocks (or refuse to buy stocks) from companies like these en masse, in protest of their child labor practices, that can effect much more change than what I can do on this small but growing blog. Regardless of what your profession is (if any), there’s a chance that you can do more than simply refuse to buy your favorite candy bar at the grocery store.

As an alternative, we should instead buy, and invest in, cocoa that is not made with child labor. By purchasing chocolate which is Fair Trade Certified or is “Bean to Bar,” then the chocolate is generally not made with child labor. These companies, not companies which use child labor, should get our money.

However, I acknowledge that it takes a level of economic privilege to afford anything other than the cheap chocolate at the grocery store, and that people might not be able to afford excluding themselves to Fair Trade chocolate. For people in this position, I encourage you to reduce your chocolate intake as much as possible. Anyway, even without the issue of slave labor, chocolate is not the healthiest thing in the world! It just so happens to be that so much chocolate is being made with child labor. As a result, there is even more motivation than there would be otherwise to avoid many of the mass-marketed and mass-produced chocolate brands.

Yes, it is a not-so-sweet truth that child labor exists in the production of so much of the chocolate we eat. However, I remain hopeful that we can all do something to confront this problem.

M&M Blog Post
M&Ms is one of many chocolate products made by slave labor. By David Adam Kess (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

17 Replies to “Slavery and Chocolate: Some Not-So-Sweet Truths”

  1. Great post and well said: “I know it is tempting to buy those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Nestlé Crunch when you’re about to check out at the grocery store or drug store, but we should do all that we can to resist this temptation.”

    I have a future post on slavery planned on the Green Stars Project too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. Also kind of disheartening considering I was just eating M&Ms while reading it… In any case, you are very right, we need to address the issue of international corporations especially using slavery and/or harmful child labour. I would point out though to be careful when calling for an end to child labour: we should ban the harmful instances for sure and those related to slavery (not all child labour is slavery), but some children do choose to work.

    I’ll try to keep this comment short so I won’t go too much into it, but an example would be the laws passed in Bolivia where children working – including child labour – was originally going to be banned. Child workers themselves, however, protested this and the law was amended to restricting the work of children and introducing rights to children who choose to work (i.e. ensuring adequate conditions which blanket prohibition often doesn’t do). Prohibiting children from work (assuming they choose to) and boycotting products also have their issues, namely it does not solve the issue of poverty that led people to work in the first place and can in fact exacerbate it. Nor does it stop slavers from selling victims to other people: it just moves the problem to a different place. I think we should call for these companies to be held responsible for their actions and change their ways, but we also need to approach the matter from a different angle that solves the root causes of the problem.

    In any case, great article. An interesting read for sure. Eye opening too regarding chocolate.

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    1. I agree that that slavery is an issue that needs to be addressed, as there are numerous corporations that seem to be involved in this slavery.

      However, I disagree with you on your position on child labor. Child labor by itself is inherently harmful because it takes time away from education and the nurturing support of parents–arguably the two most important things a child can and should have. In a complicated situation like the one you mention in Bolivia though, the solution might not be to make child labor illegal by itself (though it would be good to have that be illegal), but to address the root cause(s) of child labor so that there is no need for it.

      Speaking of Bolivia, I did some reading on the child labor situation there after seeing your reply. From what I read, they tried to make it legal for children 10 and older to work, but also added protections. Sadly, from what I read, enforcement has been poor, and many of the children there still suffer from a lack of protections at work. I hope I’m wrong.

      Finally, boycotting is a tool that can (and has) been used effectively to end injustices, such as apartheid in South Africa. Well, I think the term there was “divestment” (or taking away investment from South African goods).

      Regardless, thanks for your thorough reply!

      Like

  3. Not only corporations, sadly.

    Fair points. Regarding this, I tend to favour a regulatory approach – i.e. allowing for children to work under certain conditions (as in Bolivia) rather than an abolitionist approach (complete banning of child work). I would also hold that the implementation of law is another issue in and of itself regarding this matter: many countries prohibit children under 15 from working, but many of these countries still have children younger who work.

    Child labour in and of itself is harmful, yes and the policy in Bolivia I ‘think’ (I could be wrong – I would need to look it up again to confirm) specifies between child ‘labour’ and child ‘workers’. The difference lies in that child workers (a) do not do work that is harmful to them and (b) choose to work themselves. Often (c) work that is deemed ‘not harmful’ means work that does not interfere in education.

    I’ve flicked through your blog and you seem to follow your point about bringing to light ‘blind injustice’ – from what I understand you mean injustices that we ignore or do not acknowledge. Would not the disregarding of the voices of a particular group regarding issues that affects that particular group? This is what a blanket ban on children working does, which is part of the reason why I am against it in general. Children, particularly those reaching adolescence, deserve a voice regarding this matter considering how it affects them.

    Furthermore, I personally believe (so I concede there may be flaws with this argument of mine) that there tends to be an overemphasis on western styled education when discussing such matters, and a general western perspective on childhood. By western-styled education I mean formal schooling. There are other ways to educate children as seen historically and/or in other societies that are not western based. Some of them involve a more mentorship approach as in traditional societies, and the Bolivian policy noted the traditional work that children may undertake that helps to teach them the norms of their society and socialises them (i.e. not all work is bad). Some children also prefer working over formal schooling (although I agree education is important regarding three factors: knowing how to communicate, knowing how to manage resources [e.g. money, food] and knowing about health practices). There’s some research I could point you towards if you are interested regarding this. In any case, I acknowledge that this is my own opinion. Feel free to disagree.

    Regarding boycotting, I do acknowledge its success in ending injustices. I believe India’s break from British colonial rule is another example where it was effective (I could be remembering wrong though). Yet, for this issue, by itself it could cause more harm than good. If paired with interventions that addressed the root of the problem – not corporations using or turning a blind eye to slaves, but why people seek to enslave others in the first place (and the things that make people vulnerable to enslavement) – I agree it does has the potential to resolve this.

    Thanks for your own thorough reply. It’s always good to exchange opinions with someone. I think we might have to agree to disagree on some aspects (we do seem to agree on others though)? Sorry for the long reply.

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      1. Now I’m able to give the thorough reply that I wanted to give.

        In terms of a regulatory approach, if there are any examples of it working in practice, I’d be intrigued but not “sold” on it. However, it seems like enforcement has been a challenge in Bolivia, and many (Most? All?) of the countries with rampant child labor lack the governmental infrastructure to properly enforce the regulations (even if the desire were there).

        You were correct about the purpose of my blog! However, in using the example of banning child laborers/workers as an injustice, I think it’s worth considering why there’s that desire to work. Based on Bolivia’s high poverty rates, I assume that some of the desire (if not most, or even all, of the desire) stems from the fact that their working is the only way to economically support families. I doubt that it’s because they enjoy the act of working all on its own. And if the issue is economic, then the solution (I think) is for the immediate economic incentive of not doing child labor to outweigh the economic incentive of doing child labor.

        It’s possible that there may be an overemphasis on western-styled education. I’m not sure. I am not an education expert (yet) but I hope to learn more about that with time. So I can’t really answer to that part of your comment.

        As for boycotting, I do favor your two-tiered approach. Boycotting plus addressing the root of the problems I think is the way to go.

        Yeah, there are some things we may need to agree to disagree on. But there are other things where our ideas are not that far apart. Namely, we both want to have the best interests of children around the world in mind. We just have somewhat different ideas on how to achieve that.

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      2. Cool. Thanks. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to reply. I’ll start off by saying that our ideas, at least at their core (hazardous work for children is bad & children need to have their rights protected). I am glad we agree on this, even if we disagree on the nuances of how to go about it.

        As for showing where it works in practice, I unfortunately don’t know of too many examples (I have not researched too greatly into it yet and so am not an expert). Yet, I will put forth two points and leave it at that: (1) banning of child labour does not always work in practice either – if it did there would be no child labour existing now since from when the ban was first implemented; (2) conditions for adults initially in many working areas were horrible and very exploitative in history. This has changed over time as it has been pushed for changes in these conditions and this push and need for better working conditions ingrained into society. It still happens, but arguably not as frequently as exploitation of a child who is working happens (percentage wise: more adults work than children). Furthermore, the structures to implement such conditions for adult workers would have to be put in place. There would have to be continued push for this and there was. Likewise, for the structures to develop the idea that such structures were needed had to be developed first – just because something doesn’t work initially doesn’t mean you abandon it. Lastly, if there is an issue in these governments being unable to make such structures successful for whatever reason then perhaps such issues are linked to the issue of child labour, not separate from it. In such a case, we would need to address the former to address the latter.

        The policy in Bolvia was only recently introduced (2014). There have been laws throughout history ensuring that workers (in general) could not be exploited, but it was only in the 1800s (at least in the UK) that laws were passed banning children from work as ideas about childhood changed and what this constituted changed. How quickly were those laws effective? I do not know. Child labour could perhaps still go on there, as it can go on here in Australia despite such bans.

        That is true, a lot do work due to need. But at the same time, neither one of us can speak for every child worker and their reasons. I know, at least in Australia, we have to mandatorily complete year 12 of high school unless we have an apprenticeship. But at least the schools I know of never really portray this as an option: there tends to be an overemphasis on attending university, followed by a significantly less emphasis on tafe, and kids who want to drop out in year 10 and start work often aren’t given avenues or the proper support to do so.

        Yes, this is probably an inadequate example given that it is in a more ‘developed’ country (although many poor kids here do work to support their families and many are homeless too), but it’s just something I like to consider when approaching this issue. What do the kids want? And why do we want to educate them – what education do we mean and what perceptions is it based off? What is actually needed or what we think is needed?

        In any case, I will leave it there and agree to disagree on some points. Thanks for providing a stimulating discussion!

        Like

      3. You’re welcome!!! I too am glad to have a good discussion on this issue.

        I do think that banning child labor has worked in some cases. After all, child labor is not really much of a thing in the United States anymore. Maybe another thing is to figure out what it takes to really end child labor without any motive to carry it out illegally, because in some cases it works better than other cases.

        One point I agree with you on is the lack of support for people who drop at Year 10 (Australia) or at age 16 (United States). Economically, dropping out that early already creates enough disadvantage by itself; lacking the supports to handle that just makes everything all the worse.

        Like

      4. Great!

        Perhaps. It is likely better hidden in the US given the animosity towards it in the general culture (as opposed to a place where attitudes might be more permissive), but true it would not be as widespread as other countries. Hopefully anyway. A problem with crime stats is that for every person you catch or find out about, there’s at least one more you don’t know about.

        That is very true. Yet, attitudes are so focused towards academic pursuits in both countries… Anyway, thanks again for the discussion!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Ann's Corner and commented:
    Wow…..
    The things we don’t know…..O.o
    One of my favorites….chocolate, though I don’t really have it much now that I am watching my weight.
    We can make choices…..
    Here is the info, so you can make your choice.

    Liked by 1 person

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