MY LOVE OF CHOCOLATE SOURS WHEN I DISCOVER THE PREVALENCE OF CHILD LABOR WITHIN THE INDUSTRY

I am a chocoholic; I’ve even resorted to stealing my kids’ Halloween chocolate when struck by enormous, impossible-to-ignore cravings. And right now, as I wait anxiously for feedback on my manuscript, The Third Twin, I’m pining for a large amount of milk chocolate. Yes, I know that dark chocolate is better for me, but when faced with the prospect of waiting weeks for a response, only creamy milk chocolate will do. And usually, when this hunger hits me, I head to the pharmacy a few blocks from my house and buy a box of Neilson Rosebuds. A long-time favorite of mine, I love the unimpeded chocolaty taste (no nuts or caramel to dilute the flavor) and rigid texture of these delectable morsels. I let them melt on my tongue and then suck them back, saturating my throat with velvety chocolate.

Chocolate lifts my spirits, if only temporarily, and takes my mind off waiting. In the past, buying Rosebuds has been an easy decision, without remorse or guilt. But now, in my quest to life in adherence to fair trade principles, chocolate has become more complicated. Because the chocolate industry is one of the worst for trafficking children and turning them into slaves on cocoa plantations.

To understand how children have become victims within the chocolate industry, I do some research, starting with Fair Trade Canada. On their website, www.fairtrade.ca, it’s explained that production and trading conditions make it difficult for producers to earn a living. Cocoa farmers must negotiate with intermediaries who pay just a fraction of the value of the crop. Since farmers don’t even make enough to cover their production costs, they’ve turned to child and slave labor.

Disturbed that my love of chocolate has come at the price of a child’s freedom, I view a DVD from the International Labour Rights Forum called “The Dark Side of Chocolate.” What I see turns my stomach and makes me look at chocolate with completely different eyes.

An undercover reporter, determined to find out if child labour really exists on cocoa plantations, begins his investigation at an annual chocolate trade show in Cologne, Germany. Talking to representatives from some of the biggest chocolate manufacturers including Callebaut and Nestle, the reporter finds that most of the cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast, where child slavery is said to be the worst, yet nobody at this trade show seems to know about or acknowledge the possibility of this problem. In fact, the International Labour Forum estimates that 211 million children around the world are working, and many are forced onto cocoa plantations, paid nothing, and never attend school.

From Germany, the reporter heads to Mali, Africa where he’s been told children are routinely smuggled to cocoa plantations on the Ivory Coast. At a bus depot , the reporter spoke to a representative from the bus driver’s union, who confirmed reports of child trafficking to cocoa plantations. This man, who has rescued 150 children over the last five years, said that children are either tricked into coming to Maili, or stolen from villages. Upon arrival in Mail, they’re taken to the border by another bus, then transported over the border on motorcycle taxis. These children are as young as five and as old as 14, and this trafficking occurs every day.

A 12 year-old girl, rescued the day the reporter is at the bus station, says tearfully that she was told she’d make a lot of money in the Ivory Coast. She tells the reporter that her family will be angry when she returns without having made any money.

The reporter makes his way to a village where he discovers that 150 children have disappeared over the years. Resolved to see for himself, the reporter ventures onto several cocoa plantations where he finds small children carrying machetes for harvesting cocoa pods. Every plantation he visits has children working in the fields. When the reporter interviews former child slaves who managed to escape, he hears that they were beaten if they worked too slow.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that in 2001, the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed by the heads of eight major chocolate companies. This agreement was aimed at ending child labor and forced labor in the production of cocoa. The international cocoa industry strongly opposed this protocol and the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association hired former senators George Mitchell and Bob Dole to lobby against it. As of 2011, research in the Ivory Coast and Ghana showed that 1.8 million children are still working in cocoa agriculture, a strong indication that manufacturers have not honored this protocol.

The intrepid reporter decides to interview one of the biggest men in the industry, Ali Lakiss, president and owner of SAF-CACAO, the Ivory Coast’s largest domestically owned cocoa exporter. Lakiss looks the reporter in the face and says with total confidence that there are no children working on plantations, and that child trafficking does not exist. A government official agrees and says that when you see busloads of children on their way to the Ivory Coast, they are on vacation.

I listen to these words in disbelief. Is this man, supposedly second to the prime minister, for real? Does he honestly think people will believe him? How can he tolerate child labor in his country…how can he cover it up and pretend like it doesn’t exist? Are children so meaningless to him, the rest of the officials, and cocoa company people who look the other way?

When the documentary was finished, the reporter brought it to Frank Hagemann, chief, research and policy with the International Labour Organization. Visibly upset as he watched, Hagemann said that “a feeling of helplessness comes over you” when the documentary had finished.

While some chocolate manufacturers agreed to view the documentary, Nestle, Kraft and Cargill refused. In my mind, this is a reflection of their unwillingness to take responsibility for making sure children are not being forced to work on plantations that supply them with cocoa. It seems they’re more concerned with getting the cheapest product possible, with the bottom line more important than child safety.

This information has definitely soured my taste buds. I cannot possibly enjoy chocolate that has involved child labor within the production cycle. From now on, I’ll stick to Cadbury, which does sell fair trade chocolate, and Ten Thousand Villages, which also sells fair trade cocoa and chocolate. And I would love to start an international boycott of chocolate harvested by children as I’m afraid that the only way to stop child labor will be to significantly lower the demand for products made from this cocoa. Money is the only thing that matters to companies like Nestle; if people stop buying their products, they might finally do the right thing.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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