Is the Chocolate You’re Buying from Trafficked Child Labour?

Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar, photo courtesy World Vision
Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar, photo courtesy World Vision

By Lori Bosworth

Valentine’s Day is finally here and many Canadians have opted to buy chocolate for their loved ones. However, not all chocolate is alike. Much of the chocolate we eat is cultivated at cacao plantations by trafficked child labour under extremely poor and dangerous working conditions. We spoke to Cheryl Hotchkiss, Manager of World Vision’s No Child For Sale awareness campaign by email to find out more about the issue of child labour conditions in the cocoa industry.

LB: What risks do children face while working on cacao plantations?

CH: At World Vision, we know it is not uncommon for children to help out on the family farm – we see it happening in communities where we do development work all over the world.   If children are doing this work after school, and it’s not dangerous, it can be a real help to their families.  However, in the cocoa industry, too often children are doing what is considered the “worst forms of child labour”.  Their work is dirty, dangerous and degrading.  Here are some of the risks:

  • Children use machetes to clear the land, cut down pods and hack them open. These large, heavy, knives are the standard tools for children working on cocoa farms.
  • Children are commonly exposed to harmful chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers.
  • They work long hours in intense heat. A child’s typical workday begins at sunrise and ends in the evening.
  • Employers can be abusive.
  • Children receive little pay.
  • They are usually separated from their families.
  • They are underfed and the food that they do eat is not nutritious.
  • Access to health care is limited.
  • Their education is often jeopardized by long periods of absence from school, or many do not attend school at all.

In some cases, children are trafficked to work on cocoa farms in West Africa.  When children are trafficked, they become slaves. Their lives, their freedom, their futures are sold for a price. It happens within communities, and it happens between countries.

Machete and cocoa pods, photo courtesy World Vision
Machete and cocoa pods, photo courtesy World Vision

LB:  How old are these children?

CH: According to a study conducted by Tulane University, children working in the cocoa industry are aged between 5-17 years old.

LB: Which countries are the worst perpetrators of using child labour to work at unregulated cacao plantations?

CH: According to the International Labour Organization, 85 million children are doing dirty, dangerous and degrading work around the world. Agriculture remains by the far the biggest sector, particularly in Africa.

Cocoa products are produced in many countries, from Africa, to Asia and South America. But the majority of cocoa comes from West Africa, where Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are the biggest exporters.

While the extensive use of child labour in the cocoa industry has been researched by a number of universities, industry groups, governments, NGOs and journalists over the years, it is still hard to say exactly how many children are working in the cocoa industry.

The latest estimate is that 1.8 million children were working on cocoa-related activities in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana alone.

LB: Is the United Nations putting pressure on these countries to improve conditions for child workers on cocoa plantations?

CH: The International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations (UN) agency, has been very engaged on this issue, as part of their larger International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.

Some examples of UN efforts to work with governments to combat child labour in the cocoa industry include:

  • The ILO formed The Chocolate and Cocoa Industry Public Private-Partnership (PPP) to Combat Child Labour in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire with eight companies in the chocolate and cocoa industry to combat child labour in cocoa growing communities in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
  • In 2010 the UN hosted the U.N. Cocoa Conference, with representatives from 53 governments, including cocoa producing countries. The outcome of the conference was the International Cocoa Agreement.
  • The United Nations Development Program partnered with Cadbury, the Ghanian Government, World Vision and other partners to launch the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership Cadbury Cocoa Partnership to improve the lives and incomes of cocoa farmers.

LB: What does it mean if a chocolate company is “ethically certified?”

CH: Different ethical certification tools have standards for energy use, treatment of animals, the environment and people. Each tool has limits, but they are helpful for both consumers and chocolate companies, to reduce the likelihood of exploitation of people and/or resources.

For example, “Certified Fairtrade” chocolate products labeled through Fairtrade International (FLO) strictly prohibit the use of child labour – work that is hazardous, exploitative or that undermines a child’s education or its emotional and physical health. Fairtrade does audits to ensure compliance with child labour laws and standards. And, importantly, if there are incidents of child labour at companies or businesses with Fairtrade certification, rather than immediately decertify the business and possibly put children further at risk, FLO tries to work with the business and community to solve the problem in ways that are in the best interest of the child, instead of possibly putting children further at risk.

Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar, photo courtesy World Vision
Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar, photo courtesy World Vision

LB: What percentage of chocolate is “ethically certified”?

CH: According to the Ten Campaign, approximately 95 percent of the chocolate sold around the world today is not certified to be free from the use of forced, child or trafficked labour.

LB: How can Canadians find out which chocolate companies are ethically certified?

CH: World Vision’s Good Chocolate Guide helps Canadians find out which chocolate products that are sold in Canada are “ethically certified”. It also lets them connect to company websites to buy ethical products online.

Tackling child labour is not only the responsibility of those who derive revenue and profits from chocolate, but also those who get pleasure from chocolate. The reality for most of us is that it’s hard to know what to do, what’s okay to buy. In fact, last year an Ipsos Reid poll found that half of Canadians didn’t realize that chocolate that is certified to be free of child labour is even available! World Vision wants to help Canadians indulge in their favourite treats, while still being ethical and protecting children, and that’s why we created the Good Chocolate Guide.

LB: How can Canadians help prevent children from working in these unregulated cacao plantations?

CH: Canadians can use their consumer voice to both learn more about a chocolate company’s practices and to let them know that they are concerned about the impact of their business practices on children and communities.  Here are some questions Canadians can ask chocolate companies:

1. What’s your policy? Do you have a code of conduct or corporate policy that states that you do not employ child labourers nor do your suppliers? Where can I read more about it? Is it available to the public?

2. How do you know? How do you monitor and report on your companies’ compliance with your code of conduct or policy to investors and to the public?

3. What about violations? What is your process for ensuring that your codes of conduct or policies are adhered to by employees and suppliers? What is the process for addressing violations of your code of conduct or policy?

a. Do you have regular training and internal awareness campaigns on them?

b. Do you have internal staff regularly visiting manufacturing facilities and suppliers to ensure they are complying with your code or conduct or policy?

c. And/or do you have an independent person or group investigating compliance?