Chocolate is a product of the cacao bean, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of West Africa and Latin America. The cacao bean is more commonly referred to as cocoa, so that is the term we will use throughout. West African countries supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa market. The cocoa they grow and harvest is sold to a variety of chocolate companies, including some of the largest in the world.
In recent years, a handful of organizations and journalists have exposed the widespread use of child labor, and in some cases slavery, on West African cocoa farms.[2,3] Since that time, the industry has become increasingly secretive, making it difficult for reporters to not only access farms where human rights violations still occur, but to then disseminate this information to the public. For example, in 2004 a journalist was kidnapped and remains missing today. More recently, three journalists from a daily newspaper were detained by government authorities in the Ivory Coast after publishing an article about government corruption related to the cocoa industry. The farms of West Africa supply cocoa to international giants such as Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé – revealing the industry’s direct connection to child labor, human trafficking and slavery.
The Worst Forms of Child Labor
In West Africa, cocoa is a commodity crop grown primarily for export. As the chocolate industry has grown over the years, so has the demand for cheap cocoa. Today, cocoa farmers barely make a living selling the beans and often resort to the use of child labor in order to keep their prices competitive.
The children of West Africa are surrounded by intense poverty and most begin working at a young age to help support their family. Some children end up on the cocoa farms because they need work and they are told the pay is good. Other children are “sold” by their own relatives to traffickers or to the farm owners, and it has also been documented that traffickers often abduct the young boys from small villages in neighboring African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali.
Once they have been taken to the cocoa farms, the children may not see their families for years, if ever. When a child is delivered to the farm by a family member, that relative collects a sum of money either up front or at the end of an agreed duration of labor. Unfortunately, the relatives do not realize that the children will be exposed to a dangerous work environment and deprived of an education.
Most of the children are between the ages of 12-16, but children as young as 7 have been filmed working on the farms. Some only stay for a few months, while others end up working on the cocoa farms through adulthood.
A child’s workday begins at sunrise and ends in the evening. The children climb the cocoa trees and cut the bean pods using a machete. These large, heavy, dangerous knives are the standard tools for children on the cocoa farms. Once the bean pods have been cut from the trees, the children pack the pods into large sacks and carry or drag them through the forest. “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.” - Aly Diabate, former cocoa slave.
Holding a single large pod in one hand, the children strike the pod with the machete and pry it open with the tip of the blade, exposing the cocoa beans. Each strike of the machete has the potential to severely cut a child’s fingers or hand. Virtually every child has scars on the hands, arms, legs or shoulders from accidents with the machete.
In addition to the hazards of using a machete, children are also commonly exposed to agricultural chemicals on the West African cocoa farms. Tropical regions such as the Ivory Coast consistently have to deal with prolific insect populations and choose to spray the pods with large amounts of industrial agricultural chemicals. Without protective equipment, children as young as 12 spray the pods with hazardous chemicals.
The farm owners often provide the children with the most inexpensive food available, such as corn paste and bananas. In some cases, the children sleep on wooden planks in small windowless buildings with no access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms. Again, they may live in these conditions for months or even years.
Most of the children are unable to attend school while they are working, which is a violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) child labor standards. [2,3,7] Depriving these children of an education has many short-term and long-term effects on their lives. The children of the cocoa farms have little hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty.
In recent years, cases have been documented in which children and adults on cocoa farms were retained against their will and forced to work. While the term “slavery” has a variety of historical contexts, slavery in the cocoa industry involves the same core human rights violations as other forms of slavery throughout the world.
Cases often involve acts of physical violence, such as being whipped for working slowly or trying to escape. There have also been cases documented where children and adults were locked in at night to prevent them from escaping. Former cocoa slave Aly Diabate told reporters: “The beatings were a part of my life. I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried they were severely beaten.” Drissa, a recently freed cocoa slave who had never even tasted chocolate, experienced similar circumstances and when asked what he would tell the people who eat chocolate made from slave labor, he replied that the people enjoyed something that he suffered to make, adding: “When people eat chocolate they are eating my flesh.””
Is Slave-free Chocolate Possible?
To date, relatively little progress has been made in reducing and eliminating child labor and slavery in the cocoa industry of West Africa. The governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast lack the resources needed to properly investigate and prosecute employers who violate international labor laws. At the very least, they have agreed to work to eliminate what the ILO calls “the worst forms of child labor.” These are defined as practices “likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” and include the use of “hazardous tools” and any work that “interferes with schooling.” Currently, the vast majority of children on West African cocoa farms endure “the worst forms of child labor” every day.
Despite their role in contributing to child labor, slavery, and human trafficking, the chocolate industry has not taken significant steps to remedy the problem. A series of alliances and oversight boards may create good public relations, but cloud the fact that the industry has the power to end the use of child labor and slave labor by paying cocoa farmers a living wage for their product.
The chocolate industry is also being called upon to develop and financially support programs to rescue and rehabilitate children who have been sold to cocoa farms. To date, the industry has not committed to developing such a program.
Are the Labels on Chocolate Meaningful?
Aside from large-scale production in West Africa, a significant amount of cocoa is also grown in Latin America. This is where the majority of organic cocoa originates. At this time, child labor and/or slave labor have not been documented on these cocoa farms. While it remains possible that some Latin American farms may employ these practices, it is unlikely and certainly not widespread as is the case in West Africa.
The truth is that consumers today have no sure way of knowing if the chocolate they are buying involved the use of child labor or slave labor. There are many different labels on chocolate bars today, such as Fair Trade Certified, however, no single label can guarantee that the chocolate was made without the use of exploitive labor. In 2010, the founders of the Fair Trade Certification process had to suspend several of their West African suppliers due to evidence that they were using child labor.
Multiple government and NGO programs have been developed, attempting to address the root causes of “the worst forms of child labor” and slavery in West Africa. However, the success of these efforts will depend greatly on the genuine support or lack thereof from the chocolate industry over the coming years.
It is important to offer ways in which people can make decisions to do their best to not contribute to injustices and cruelties involved in the food industry. This issue is a very difficult one to fully access as the most serious abuses are taking place across the world. However, that does not mean our responsibility is diminished since chocolate is indeed a luxury (though some might feel differently) and not a necessity like fruits and vegetables. Taking all of this into consideration and looking at the research that is available, at this time F.E.P. recommends that people do not buy any chocolate sourced from areas in West African where child slavery is the most pervasive.
Please do check our list for vegan chocolates that fall under our “recommend” or “do not recommend” categories.
 World Cocoa Foundation: Cocoa Market Update. March 2012 http://worldcocoafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/Cocoa-Market-Update-as-of-3.20.2012.pdf (2/7/13)
 Raghavan S. and Chatterjee S. “A Taste of Slavery.” 2001. Knight Ridder Newspapers.http://vision.ucsd.edu/~kbranson/stopchocolateslavery/atasteofslavery.html (7/25/10)
 “Tracing the bitter truth of chocolate and child labour.” BBC/Panorama. 2010.http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8583000/8583499.stm (7/25/10)
 Guy-André Kieffer. “Franco-Canadian Journalist Killed by First Lady’s Security Guards.” RFI English. 2009. (8/8/10) http://www.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/115/article_4453.asp
 “Ivory Coast Cocoa Story Journalists Face Trial.” Reuters. http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/good-governance/news-and-analysis/detail.dot?id=1e343476-c0b6-4967-8fc5-979622f55165 (8/8/10)
 L. Diane Mull, BSb EDa and Steven R. Kirkhorn, MD, MPHb. “Child Labor in Ghana Cocoa Production: Focus upon Agricultural Tasks, Ergonomic Exposures, and Associated Injuries and Illnesses.” Public Health Rep. 2005 Nov-Dec; 120(6): 649-656. PMCID: PMC1497785 Copyright © 2005 Association of Schools of Public Healthhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1497785/ (8/5/10)
 Convention 182: “Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.” 1999. International Labour Organization (ILO)http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/ilc/ilc87/com-chic.htm (7/25/10)
 Karlee Sapoznik. “When People Eat Chocolate, They Are Eating My Flesh”: Slavery and the Dark Side of Chocolate. 2010. http://activehistory.ca/2010/06/%E2%80%9Cwhen-people-eat-chocolate-they-are-eating-my-flesh%E2%80%9D-slavery-and-the-dark-side-of-chocolate/ (8/3/10)
 “Broken Hearts: A Review of Industry Efforts to Eliminate Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry.” 2010. International Labor Rights Forum. http://www.laborrights.org/sites/default/files/publications-and-resources/BrokenHearts2010.pdf (7/24/10)
 “Newman’s Own Organic.” Sourcing of Chocolate.http://www.newmansownorganics.com/food_ccookies.html (8/27/10)