"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" Luke 4:18 (NRSV)
Nearly an 80 billion dollar industry, chocolate production typically starts on small cocoa farms in West Africa - the Ivory Coast and Ghana - with child labor. Child labor here is used to denote a set of practices that are potentially harmful to children. According to the International Labor Organization, "child labor [is] work that 'is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; by obliging them to leave school prematurely; or by requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.'"
Several serious problems exist.
First, children working on cocoa farms often use hazardous tools such as machetes even at the young age of 7 or 8. Children may apply hazardous pesticides without protection and be made to carry exceptionally heavy loads. And many, if not most, do not go to school.
A U.S. government-backed study by Tulane University concluded, in March 2011, that more than 1.8 million children in West Africa continue to be involved in cultivating cocoa. A November 2011 investigative piece by the BBC's Humphrey Hawksley reports that it is commonplace to see "children carrying machetes or pesticide equipment," and joylessly hard at work collecting and cutting open the cocoa pods that contain cocoa seeds. "There was no laughter or play. On their legs were scars from machete injuries."
Even worse, many of the children working on cocoa farms are trafficked, slaves sold typically by relatives who are desperately poor. According to Toward Freedom:
Boys and girls, usually between the ages of 12 and 16 but some as young as 7 and 9, are smuggled from neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and sold to cocoa bean plantation owners. The children are often lured into slavery under the pretenses of paid work. Upon being sold to plantation owners, the children are forced to engage in grueling manual labor, carrying extremely heavy bags, working with machetes and pesticides. They often work long hours, as many as 80 a week, but they are rarely, if ever, paid.
The Harkin-Engel Protocol, devised by two US Congressmen and agreed to by the chocolate industry in the early 2000's,is intended to eliminate the "worst forms of child labor" in the chocolate industry. However, recent studies conclude that a decade after the agreement, little has changed.
In his book Shalom: The Bible's Word for Salvation, Justice & Peace, Perry Yoder defines shalom/peace as things being as they "ought to be." It is easy to see that things are not as they ought to be in the chocolate business. We, as Christians, as peacemakers, as caring people, must consider how we contribute to this problem and what we can do to change things.
First, we can become more aware of the problems of child labor and trafficking as they relate to the chocolate industry and in general. Here are a couple of very good resources:
Toward Freedom: an organization whose mission includes "advanc[ing] movements for human rights, peace, justice, enlightenment, and freedom from oppression"
Chocolate-The Bitter Truth: Documentary by BBC's Panorama about child labor and slavery in the chocolate industry. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rqm4n> View the documentary on YouTube. Part 1 is at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD85fPzLUjo>
CNN Freedom Project:
We can take a variety of actions related to ending child labor and trafficking, such as buying fair trade products, or actions to bring awareness to others. While Fair Trade certification is not a guarantee that child labor has not occurred, it typically does mean that every effort to detect and eliminate child labor has been taken. Look for the fair trade certification on products or check out the following. While you're at it, check out Fair Trade in general during October which is Fair Trade Month.
Equal Exchange: Fair trade products including chocolate. The following link is a good resource related to fair trade chocolate from Equal Exchange.
Reverse Trick or Treat: If you go trick or treating, hand back a small information card about fair trade and child labor in the chocolate industry. It's a good way to raise awareness.
Bringing an end to child labor in the chocolate industry begins with awareness and culminates in actions which will ultimately change things. We may not be able to change "the system" overnight, nor even completely eliminate the problems. But each of us can take small steps that will have an incremental impact on solving these problems. If consumers insist on products that are free of child labor and are willing to forego those that are not, suppliers will eventually have to respond. At any rate, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 9:18, NIV)