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Think Before You Buy That Valentine’s Chocolate: Child Labor and Slavery is Still a Huge Issue

Over half of the world’s cacao is harvested from the neighboring West African countries of Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana. A 2013 study led by Tulane professor William Bertrand estimated there were approximately two million children working in the chocolate industry, as young as five years old. One in five children was under the age of 12.

These figures were actually an increase from previous years, despite million-dollar reform commitments made by chocolate behemoths like Nestlé, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey. As Bertrand pointed out in an interview last fall with Mother Jones, “[Chocolate companies] talk a lot about the money spent on various activities related to child labor, but when we did the calculations, a fair proportion of that money was spent on sitting around and talking about it in London and Geneva.”

Reports from subsequent years demonstrate that child labor still persists. Nestlé, for example, had not been able to adequately reform their farmers’ practices by 2015, according to The Guardian; despite efforts to educate farmers on the company’s code of conduct prohibiting child labor, few had any knowledge of these measures of reform. Last year, the Financial Times published figures that showed that even more children were working on cacao farms than ever, emphasizing that chocolate companies’ efforts to address child labor are having little to no effect.

What Does Child Labor Look Like in the Chocolate Industry?

Child labor is not simply work that is conducted while someone is underage. While adults can also sustain injury and illness while working on a cacao farm, children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of the job. Farm workers are subject to pesticide exposure and injury from machetes without having access to protective gear or first aid. Their little bodies are also made to carry heavy loads.

Working on a cacao farm also means that children are not receiving an education; rather, they are working for little to no pay in an industry that offers no opportunity for a sustainable livelihood. The U.S. Department of Labor acknowledges that children end up on farms through human trafficking and kidnapping, and many are even sent away or sold by their families; the department has partnered with the governments of Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire as well as chocolate companies to end these exploitative practices.

The underlying issues that drive child labor are complex and cannot simply be solved by enacting ethical standards in the industry which are ineffective or ultimately unsustainable. Regional poverty, economic instability, and limited job opportunities are all driving factors behind using cheap or free child labor on cacao farms, which requires substantial transformations to occur at the national and global level.

How You Can Be the Best Chocolate Consumer

In January, consumers lost a class-action suit against Nestlé and Hershey that would have taken the companies to task over hiding their chocolate’s unethical origins in a way that deceives consumers into supporting child slave labor; while the presiding judge acknowledged that child and slave labor were “beyond dispute” in the industry, she concluded that the companies were not employing deceptive marketing practices. Other cases in recent years have waged similar legal battles against these companies to no avail. That means that, currently, much of the burden is put on the consumer to buy chocolate produced without child labor or slavery.

Unless you’re somehow intimately familiar with a particular chocolate company’s practices, it’s hard to trace the bean back from the bar that you buy at the grocery store. The best you can do is look for certifications like Fair Trade and Utz. You’ll usually be paying a bit more for these chocolates, as your money is supporting humane practices rather than products that squeeze as much profit as they can get from an industry. The certifications aren’t a guarantee, though. Slave Free Chocolate, a grassroots organization that aims to end the “worst forms of child labor” in the cacao industry, points out that certified Fair Trade chocolate is not necessarily 100% free of child slavery but that the products are simply much less likely to employ exploitative practices than products that without the label. The organization cited that only 5% of the cacao on the market is certified Fair Trade.

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