Chocolate is enjoyed all over the world as a tasty dessert and snack. In fact, the entire chocolate industry was already valued at $103.28 billion in 2017, and sales continue to rise. But as delicious as chocolate is, much of the world’s supply can be traced back to child labor.
Chocolate Production and Child Labor
More than 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, and within this region, around 60% is contributed by the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Even though poverty is a major issue in both of these countries, they’re actually cocoa suppliers to huge international companies like Hershey’s and Nestle.
However, as demand for chocolate rises globally, prices go down, and they’re already less than half of what they were in 1980. This doesn’t bode well for the sustainability of cocoa farming in West Africa. Cocoa farmers live well below the global poverty line, earning less than $2 per day. Ironically, even as the companies they supply to enjoy higher valuations and increased sales, the farmers themselves receive lower wages.
To compensate, farmers are trying to boost productivity by bringing in more labor. The result is child labor, with millions of children working in cocoa farms instead of going to school. Most of the children are 12 years old and above, although it’s not unusual to see children as young as 6. Aside from an unsanitary environment and food that’s lacking in nutrition, these children also grapple with toxic chemicals and dangerous equipment such as machetes. Even worse, some of them are trafficked from other countries and never returned to their families, and there are even numerous cases of slavery.
Child Labor is Still Rampant
This isn’t a new problem at all. It has been brought to public awareness since at least 2001, but even nearly 20 years later, child labor remains rampant.
In 2001, some of the largest chocolate and cocoa companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in collaboration with the US government. This protocol aimed to “eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” In response to this, the nonprofit International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) was also formed, with the mission of promoting child protection in West Africa.
While there has been some progress, a 2018 report shows that companies and governments still fall short of the industry’s 2010 pledge of reducing child labor by 70% in 2020. Chocolate may already be a billion-dollar market, but not all companies are as financially committed to eliminating child labor, and some have even chosen to be secretive about their operations instead of actively making these more sustainable.
Efforts Towards Ethically Sourced Chocolate
Despite how prevalent child labor still is, there have been several helpful changes since the Harkin-Engel Protocol of 2001. Among the most notable would be certifications such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, which are already widely implemented. Fairtrade sets the minimum price for each product, and the resulting larger returns are given to farmers and their families. Chocolates are only given the Fairtrade label if they’re ethically sourced, without the involvement of child labor.
As consumers, one way to help fight against child labor is to choose chocolate and cocoa brands with Fairtrade or other anti-child labor certifications. Some wholesale suppliers such as Santa Barbara Chocolate also offer products with these labels.
Aside from certifications, nearly all large chocolate companies already have their own sustainability programs. There are also emerging chocolate brands that use a different business model to collaborate more closely with farmers, along with government and NGO programs that tackle child slavery.
Addressing Poverty and Farmer Wages
While all of these are useful, they’re not enough to solve the problem of child labor. For example, it’s possible for certifications miss out on child labor cases because farms can’t be inspected all the time. The most effective approach is to deal with the root of the problem: poverty and low wages.
When farms need more labor, children become a convenient option for many reasons. For one, there can be fewer adult workers to recruit because young adults tend to migrate to urban areas. Education can also be too expensive, so children are forced to work instead. Unfortunately, lack of education only perpetuates the problem, feeding the cycle of poverty.
A straightforward option would be to simply increase the wages of farmers and workers so they wouldn’t have to resort to child labor anymore. In Ghana, it’s doable with an 11.8% rise in wages. Until this is addressed, everything else is only a band-aid solution.
Thankfully, as an initial step, both of the governments in Ghana and the Ivory Coast declared better for cocoa this 2019, which means higher wages for cocoa farmers. The minimum price is now $2600 per ton of cocoa. In comparison, living income amounts to $2668 per ton in the Ivory Coast and $2300 per ton in Ghana.
Everyone is Responsible
Child labor in chocolate production is a long-standing issue, and solving it needs everyone’s participation. Chocolate companies must source their chocolates sustainably and give higher wages to cocoa suppliers and farmers; consumers must be willing to pay more and support only brands that don’t rely on child labor; and the government must facilitate changes, guide community efforts, and intervene accordingly. Raising farmer wages may not be an easy solution, but so far, it’s potentially the most effective.