Slaves to Chocolate: Keep up the Pressure

If you’re like me, you’d rather not know the gloomier facts about how food gets to us. I like to buy food at a good price and just eat it.

Sometimes though the hard facts leak through.  Take chocolate.  It’s practically a staple at our house and I’d prefer not knowing anything dark about chocolate except its color. 72% dark is ideal, but I’ll go all the way to 85.

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It was hard to hear that the industry uses child slaves.  The reporter of this sad fact was one of our children, a middle schooler at the time, who’d been assigned to study the country Burkina Faso.

One of the poorest countries in the world (average per capita income $300), Burkina Faso, along with other poor countries in the region, is a source for child slaves for the cocoa business.

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The issue is numbingly complex.  The drivers of the cocoa business, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500), Barry Callebaut and Saf-Cacao, buy from local traders who mix beans from many growers, so it’s difficult to (cheaply) source where beans come from.

70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in Western Africa, mainly in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.  Much of it comes from small family farms where children work alongside their parents.

Many child workers, however, are not family.  Some arrive voluntarily, looking for better lives.  Some, about 200,000 a year (2002 Sustainable Tree Crops Program of the Institute of Tropical Agriculture of Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria report), are brought forcibly from neighboring poorer countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin. Most are paid poorly or not at all.  Conditions can be horrific.

“The children work under inhumane conditions and extreme abuse, working with sharp machetes and poisonous sprays, from 6 in the morning, till 6 at night…One ex-child slave said 18 children were locked into a 24 X 20 foot room, sleeping on a wooden plank.  A small hole was just big enough to let in some air, but they were forced to urinate in a can.”

A boy who was beaten after he tried to escape:


In 2001 Congress passed a law requiring that US companies voluntarily stop buying from farms that use slave labor.

Several companies jumped on board.

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Others dragged their feet:

It’s tempting to lay all the blame on the corporations who bring us chocolate, but as long as people like me opt for cheap stuff and ignore how it gets to us, the big companies will also keep ignoring where it comes from.

Thanks to steadfast pressure from political activists, including thousands of bloggers, there is progress.  After being threatened by the International Labor Rights Forum with exposure on the Superbowl Jumbotron this year January, Hershey’s declared it would certify its Bliss chocolate bars under Rainbow Alliance standards.

Let’s keep it up.  If you can afford it, try Trader Joe’s Fair Trade chocolate:

Rather than its unsourced Belgian chocolate:

Look for chocolates with the Fair Trade label:

Note that there are several levels of “fair trade” ratings. For instance, the Rainbow Alliance certification that Hershey’s opted for with its Bliss chocolate is only a level 3 certification: it prohibits use of slave labor, but doesn’t protect worker rights to organize, doesn’t agree to a price floor and only 30%of the ingredients need to be certified.

Here’s a handy chart to figure out what all the “fair trade” labels mean and what brands are most likely to have come from farms that use slave labor:

For inspiration, watch this January 2012 special report (excerpt below):

The more I know, the easier it is to dig deeper into the pocketbook rather than reach for the cheapest thing on the shelf.

What is your favorite chocolate?  What is the best Fair Trade chocolate?  Have you struggled with the issue of sourcing food or have first-hand reports on the child-slavery/chocolate connection?   I’d love to hear your stories and learn more.


  • Yes, I struggle with food issues – how it’s grown, where it’s grown, how the animals are treated…all of it. What’s natural vs. not…it’s tough. I don’t have any answers other than to do the best I can when I can. There’s only so much we can do – either because of location or because of budget or both.


  • So true. I hate to think of chocolate as a luxury, and thus something we should be willing to pay more for, but there it is.


  • I just learned about child slavery and chocolate. Since we are big chocolate consumers, I wrote Trader Joe’s, to find out about their inexpensive Belgian chocolate bars, and was given an unsatisfactory answer, basically stating that there was nothing they can do about it as their chocolate was bought through the world chocolate market (and not from specific growers) and suggested I buy their fair trade chocolate. I felt this was a lame answer, the kind of answer that allows this practice to continue. Why not sell only fair trade chocolate? That’s doing something about it! It seems to me that there will have to be some regulation coming from within the chocolate-producing countries themselves, and supported by the world chocolate market, to change the practice of child slavery. It is a practice that is similar to animal poaching, that is ingrown and that will be extremely hard to root out, taking place in countries with corrupt leaders given to looking the other way.


  • Trader Joe’s, as much as I love the place, prioritizes profit. Sure, they carry organic and fair trade products, but they skate a fine line, buying and selling as cheaply as possible, often hiding the source of their products and shipping out of season from far away. The best two ways to push Trader Joe’s to do the right thing: education and purchasing power. Spread the word and buy the right thing.


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