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

Slavery Exists Here

When you read the title, your emotions may’ve been something along the lines of, “Wait…slavery was abolished long ago!” And that goes not just for the United States, but for other nations as well.

And yet, I’m writing a blog post to make all of us aware that slavery exists here. It exists in the United States of America.

It does not exist because it’s legal. It exists in spite of the fact that it’s illegal.

One of many scary things about modern-day slavery, at least where I come from (New York City), is that so much of it exists in a shadow, with few people realizing that it even happens. For example, when I walked on large swaths of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York with a friend a few months ago, I saw no signs that it is considered by many to be the epicenter of sex trafficking in New York City. Maybe there were signs I missed—especially embarrassing for me because the first social justice cause I worked to educate people about was human trafficking, back when I was a high school student volunteer for an anti-human trafficking campaign. But regardless of that fact, if even I couldn’t spot some of the signs of the sex trafficking along an infamous corridor for sex trafficking, then many others probably wouldn’t spot the signs, either.

Ultimately, modern-day slavery, in the United States and in many other parts of the world, is a textbook definition of a blind injustice. It is an injustice that we tend to be blind to.

How can we remove that blindness?

The first thing I’d recommend is to do a simple Google (or Bing, or Yahoo) search of human trafficking, sex trafficking, or other form of slavery in your area (whether it be a city, county, township, or state). You might find stories on slavery in your area, and you might even run into stories where you ask yourself why you passed by an area but never realized that slavery went on there.

I would also recommend looking at resources provided by entities like the Polaris Project and the United States Department of Homeland Security. While these resources might not be able to help people catch all of the signs of slavery, sites like these do give some very important signs (and signs that have been used by people before to recognize that someone is being victimized).

Finally, if you suspect that someone you know is being victimized by slavery in the United States, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733). If you don’t live in the United States but notice a potential case of slavery, please consult CNN’s Freedom Project to find the appropriate hotline in your home country.

Nobody may be able to singlehandedly deal with, let alone end, modern-day slavery. But all of us can and should take the step of making ourselves aware that such a thing exists, that there are ways of recognizing when this is happening, and that there are ways of dealing with these types of situations.

Author’s Note: If any of the national numbers are either not included on CNN’s list or are different from CNN’s list, please let me know about the appropriate number in the comments section below. This is the most recent list I can find, but numbers do change.

The Forgotten Injustice of the American National Anthem

On Independence Day next Tuesday, many Americans will bring out American flags, talk with pride about the nation’s heritage, and proudly belch out the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I was especially proud to sing our national anthem in the years after 9/11, when I was too young to understand the full meaning of the song, but also old enough to realize that the song was to many people a symbol of defiance towards terrorists who tried to destroy the nation’s identity. But these days, I have trouble singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at all, let alone singing it in public.

Before people call me unpatriotic, just as many called NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick unpatriotic for his refusal to stand during the American national anthem, please hear me out. I too am a believer in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” even if those ideals did not extend towards African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, people in the LGBTQ+ community, and others for many decades after that phrase was first used. But the fact is that, if the United States of America wants to carry out a universal, inclusive, and just vision of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our current national anthem is not a representation of such a vision.

In making this claim, I point to an oft-forgotten part of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—the third verse:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave…from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

These two lines from the third verse make it sound like the author, Francis Scott Key, was celebrating the death of African American slaves.

To add historical context to the verse, African American slaves who fought for the British were offered freedom in the War of 1812. Hence, the British served as a “refuge” for slaves, since they seemed to offer slaves what they wanted—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

However, slaves fighting for the British did not give Francis Scott Key what he wanted, which was the preservation of the United States of America. Once the British-allied slaves got killed, on the other hand, the United States stood a greater chance of having a preserved country.

Between the lyrics and the historical context of the lyrics, it certainly seems like this portion of the song celebrates the death of slaves trying to free themselves from slavery. Since it celebrates enslaved death instead of freedom and life, the American national anthem is not a song that celebrates an inclusive, universal, and just version of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Many of us forget about the injustice of the song (the third verse in particular) because we only sing the first verse. However, we should not let ourselves forget about any part of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This song refused to extend the vision of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” towards a whole group of people (slaves, particularly slaves fighting for the British), and everyone who sings this song should be mindful of that fact.