Hey, That’s Not Fair

In September of 2001, the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed.

Pretty heady stuff, isn’t it?

The Harkin-Engel is also known as the Cocoa Protocol, and it was enacted to protect the rights of children working in the cocoa fields of Africa and Central America.

The United States will spend about $14 billion on chocolate this year.  All of this chocolate is produced overseas, and it’s about 7 billion pounds of the sweet stuff.  We’re going to consume about 4 billion pounds of that, or a little over half.

The problem is that most of this cocoa is grown in West Africa, in countries like Ivory Coast.  Ivory Coast, like much of Africa, is not known as a hotbed of human rights and is more often than not embroiled in civil war.  Ivory Coast is also the world’s largest producer of cocoa.

The problem is that it takes a pretty heavy labor force to get to the little cocoas, and with farmers only getting about 5 cents of every dollar spent on it, that labor needs to be cheap.  That’s where the children come in.

The cheapest and hardest working laborers in choco-land are kids.  According to UNICEF, about 200,000 are working in Ivory Coast alone.  Most of them are slaves, and many were smuggled from Mali and Burkina Faso to supplement the labor force. They get caught in a Catch-22 whereby they aren’t really paid for their work, so they can’t improve their lives, which they only have because they are harvesting cocoa.  It is estimated that up to 40% of the cocoa sold in the world market is harvested this way.

Harkin-Engel was supposed to prevent this.  They got plenty of grief from the chocolate industry, which was keen to police themselves.  Since this cheap labor kept cocoa prices low, they were probably a bad choice to keep an eye on things (the ultimate ‘fox guards henhouse’ scenario).  The protocol reached an agreement with the chocolate industry in 2001.  This bill gave them four years to certify that their sweets were produced by free men, and not kidnapped children.

Seems easy enough, doesn’t it?

The chocolate industry asked for an extension.  A guy was concerned about child slavery and wrote letters to over a hundred chocolate companies asking them about their practices, and the one from Hershey was pretty typical of the bunch.  In a letter received in June of 2001, a representative of the company told him, “…the recent unrest in the Ivory Coast has made a thorough, in-country investigation impossible, we have been in contact with representatives of the World Bank as well as with other chocolate manufacturers and cocoa buyers, all of whom have decades of experience in West Africa.  To the best of their knowledge, this remains an isolated problem…”

An “isolated problem”?  To say that 200,000 children in serfdom is an isolated problem is like saying the reactor in Fukushima experienced a “glitch”.

After a pass in 2005, a new deadline came and went in 2007.  In an “Okay, we really, really mean it this time” moment, 2010 went out with the bathwater.

One of the leading voices in the movement to end this practice is the 10 Campaign.  They were involved in a recent piece on CNN that addressed child slavery and cocoa.  They invited a representative from the Global Issues Group of the chocolate industry to make a comment.  Joanna Scott said, “The progress isn’t enough.  We have to do more.”

Holy Cow.  Like a politician shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Yup.  Lied to you.”

(ed. note:  Very analogy heavy today.)

So how can you know that your little morsel is free from the stink of slavery?

The first step is to certify that your sweet is Fair Trade.  A good tool to use is this app from Fair Trade USA.  Fair trade means that a company like Hershey’s is going to look out for the welfare of the farmer and his workers.  There are some unscrupulous characters out there, withholding payment, undercutting prices, and making it hard for growers to earn an honest living.  Fair trade does not mean “slave-free”, but it’s pretty darn close.  A business that is transparent enough to go after that label is probably going to allow for a pretty thorough review of their labor practices.

Another good idea, and we always like this one, is to go organic.  A grower has to submit to some pretty good scrutiny to get that badge, and it’s hard to hide your slaves when you’ve got organic inspectors snooping around.

Lastly, think about what you buy.  Hershey’s and Mars are in control of 2/3 of the U.S. chocolate market, and for that matter, most of the world’s.  Do you really think that they know the provenance of every cocoa bean that they use?  Read the label.

Chocolate is sweet, but slavery ain’t cool.