The Chocolate Industry’s long (and ongoing) History of Child Labor and Slavery.

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The Chocolate Industry’s long (and ongoing) History of Child Labor and Slavery. 

During the course of a day, children as young as five years old could be expected to wield sharp instruments such as machetes, carry heavy loads and work during the night or up to 100 hours a week. Other hazardous working conditions included land clearing  or being exposed to agro-chemicals like pesticides or fertilizers.

Miki Mistrati, a journalist who encountered child cacao laborers while working on his documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” said what surprised him most while investigating the chocolate industry was the prevalence of illegal child labor and child trafficking.

“There’s a high probability that your chocolate bars in your supermarket are produced by child slaves,” Mistrati wrote in an email. “They are lured away from their home country and work as slaves, so you can get cheap chocolate. Most heartbreaking was in Mali, when I saw how a little boy, perhaps eight years, had just been trafficked and was heading towards a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast. His anxiety and tears went straight to my heart. I just wanted to take him home, but I could do nothing else than to tell the outside world.”


The July 2015 report from the Payson Center for International Development, co-authored by Tulane professors William Bertrand and Elke de Buhr, estimated 2.12 million child laborers worked in cacao production in the 2013-2014 harvesting season in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world’s two largest producers of cacao. Of those children, an estimated 2.03 million, or 96 percent, encountered hazardous working conditions — an 18 percent increase from 2008-2009.

Local businesses in the Shreveport and Bossier area showed a general lack of awareness that cacao in many of their products might involve the use of child labor. Barry Gerald, general manager at Superior’s Steakhouse in Shreveport, said the restaurant uses Belgian chocolate in their desserts but had limited knowledge of the source of the chocolate.

The Centre de Reinsertion et d’Education Pour Les Enfants de La Rue in the Ivory Coast reported many children are kidnapped or sold to traffickers by their parents — for an equivalent of $60. These parents are led to believe the children will be given decent working conditions and a basic education, while in reality many children are beaten, starved and forced to work long hours.

When consumers buy chocolate from some of the country’s most cherished chocolate producers — such as Lindt, Hershey or Nestle — they also are supporting child labor and the hazardous conditions the children encounter.

Children most likely to be in hazardous conditions were teenage boys — 41 percent of whom worked in hazardous conditions — and children between the ages of 12 and 17. Bill Bertrand, professor and co-founder of Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development, said studies such as  the 2015 report can be the first step to creating positive change.

“The kinds of studies we’re doing helps take the issue and raise it to the level of public debate,” Bertrand said. “The studies have documented that we can measure the extent of child labor, and it has resulted in companies committing to eradicating child labor.”

Conscientious chocolate consumption is far from impossible. Local stores such as Kroger and Drug Emporium carry chocolate brands that have achieved fair trade standards, including the Endangered Species and Theo chocolates. The Food Empowerment Project  also has a free chocolate list app, which can be downloaded from their website and which allows consumers to search for individual brands of chocolate to see if child labor was likely involved.

While a fair trade label doesn’t guarantee child labor-free chocolate, it does ensure companies are meeting ethical and sustainability guidelines. Jennifer Gieseke, owner of the vegan restaurant Healthy Chef Meals in Shreveport, wasn’t aware of the child labor that goes into much cacao production but said she has prioritized using organic, fair trade ingredients out of concern for the planet and people’s overall well-being.

“We’re 100 percent plant-based. We do mostly organic,” Gieseke said. “It’s clean, healthy food, and it’s good for our environment.”

Conscientious buying and dining sends a message to companies. Sunshine Health Foods owner Randy Hamaker said customer demand directly impacts the health food store’s inventory.The health foods store stocks fair trade, organic products to fulfill demand from a niche population, Hamaker said.

“They want fair trade, sustainable products, and they know that’s what we carry,” Hamaker said. “It’s a concern of the consumer. That’s what drives everything.”

Both Ghana and the Ivory Coast saw a slight decrease in the number of children involved in hazardous conditions, due to several efforts by both countries to prioritize addressing child labor and improving quality of life for children.  For example, both countries saw an increase in children who had access to education. In the Ivory Coast, 71 percent of children attended school — up from 59 percent in 2008 — and Ghana saw a 5 percent increase to a total of 96 percent of children attending school.

Despite these improvements, experts say both countries aren’t on track to meet the target goals outlined in the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Signed in September 2001, the protocol aimed to end the worst forms of child labor in cocoa production. A 2010 Framework for Action Support — Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol established the goal that by 2020 “the worst forms of child labor as defined by (ILO) Convention 182 in cocoa sectors of Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana will be reduced by 70 percent.”

In contrast, both Ghana and the Ivory Coast have seen an  increase in the total number of children in the cacao industry. According to the Tulane report, 1.5 million children would still have to be removed from hazardous work conditions to meet that target, which will be unlikely without changes to production strategies.

Possible solutions include carrying out nationally representative surveys on child labor in cocoa-growing areas to identify child labor trends and a routine data collection task force by the countries’ governments. Plans also are in place to organize a research center in association with Tulane University, which would create a data repository about child and forced labor and also provide short and long term certifications. Bertrand said the governments, particularly Ghana’s, have been receptive to strategies to reduce child labor.

“They are trying to do things, they just want to see the impact of what they’re doing faster than they’re going to,” Bertrand said. “There needs to be increased research on mechanization and using tools that are less dangerous and a major emphasis on education. And there has been progress in both.”

Bertrand said the main responsibility is that of the local governments, but the university plans to continue their work with both countries. He added consumer choice can be a driving force in making an impact.

“There’s just a few companies that make up the production of chocolate. They are big, and they can be held accountable,” Bertrand said. “I don’t think the companies are being intentionally malignant. It’s the company’s responsibility to inform the consumer, and ultimately it’s the consumers who can have the most impact.”