Food Empowerment Project urges transparency on child slavery

West Africa boycott needed for slave-free chocolate, says consumer group

By Oliver Nieburg contact

- Last updated on GMT

Cocoa origin labeling enables consumers to avoid chocolate made via child slavery, says the Food Empowerment Project.  But the International Cocoa Initiative warns that boycotts could make things worse.
Cocoa origin labeling enables consumers to avoid chocolate made via child slavery, says the Food Empowerment Project. But the International Cocoa Initiative warns that boycotts could make things worse.

Related tags: Child labor, Slavery, Ghana, Africa, West africa

The Food Empowerment Project has called on US chocolate makers to list cocoa country of origin on pack so consumers can avoid brands that use cocoa from West Africa, where it claims unlawful child labor is common.

Its calls come as Europe debates whether to make cocoa origin labeling mandatory.

‘Right to know’

“Child labor and slavery is taking place in West Africa and consumers have a right to know,” ​ Lauren Ornelas,  executive director of Food Empowerment Project, told ConfectioneryNews.

Her organization has developed a list of recommended chocolate brands​ and other brands that it advises against. Its criterion is simple:  If the product uses cocoa sourced in West Africa then it can’t recommend the product.

The Food Empowerment Project recently succeeded in lobbying Clif Bar to reveal the origins of its cocoa. Clif Bar & Company said recently that it sourced 100% Rainforest Alliance cocoa from Côte D’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Peru and Tanzania.

“Unfortunately they are sourcing from areas where child labor is common. We don’t feel comfortable with cocoa sourced in West Africa,” ​said Ornelas.

How common is child labor in West Africa?

Over 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, mostly in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

According to a study​ by Tulane University, almost 820,000 children in the Ivory Coast and over 997,000 kids in Ghana were found to be working on cocoa-related activities in 2007/2008.

Ornelas said that if studies found similar practices were widespread in other sourcing regions such as Latin America and Asia, her organization would boycott chocolate altogether.

Only the worst forms of child labor are illegal

Child work is not forbidden in West Africa per se – just as it is not forbidden in the United States. Under US federal law, a 10 year old can be employed in non-hazardous work on a US farm with parental consent. Ioawa is an exception and has no minimum age for part-time agricultural workers.

Similarly, laws in the Ivory Coast and Ghana do not prohibit children from helping out on farms, but do forbid forcing children to engage in dangerous activities such as carrying heavy loads and using machetes.

Paying a consumer living wage

divine choc medium
The Food Empowerment Project does allow some exceptions to the ‘No West Africa cocoa’ rule. For example it supports UK firm Divine Chocolate, which sources its cocoa from a cooperative in Ghana that also owns a 45% stake in the company.

Ornelas said child labor was a consequence of low-pay for cocoa farmers. “The corporations are in a position to pay a living wage – they are making millions,” ​she said, adding that brands needed to go beyond paying a premium for certified cocoa.

“They need to be sourcing from cooperatives where they are paying consumer living wages,”​ she said. She called for the industry to determine a fair living wage for cocoa farmers using a model similar to the decent living wage calculated by Asia Floor Wage campaign​ for the Asian textiles industry workers.

According to Fairtrade International, small family farms which account for 90% of the world’s cocoa supply, generate an average annual income of $30-100 per household member in a cocoa year (Oct-Sept).

Boycott will make things worse, says ICI

The International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), whose members include Mars, Mondelēz, Hershey and Nestlé, recently announced its 2015-2020 strategy​ that changes its approach to child labor in the cocoa sector. It focuses on treating the causes of child of child labor such as a child’s access to education, healthcare and basic nutrition, rather than simply removing any child found to be unlawfully working on farms.

Pending Lawsuits

  • Hershey is currently facing a US lawsuit​ alleging that it is complicit in illegal child labor and human trafficking on cocoa farms in West Africa by sourcing from the region and purportedly knowing these labor practices exist.
  • Nestlé, Cargill and ADM too are facing a similar US lawsuit​ brought by former child slaves in the cocoa sector who allege the companies aided and abetted child slavery in Côte D’Ivoire.

Borjana Pervan, ICI’s head of communications, told this site that radical knee-jerk reactions that seek simplistic solutions would not resolve the complex challenges cocoa farmers face, since these can't be neutralized by a small percentage increase in the cocoa price.

”In the absence of such a silver bullet, boycotting West African cocoa will only make things worse,” ​she said.

“West African farmers are poor today and they will be poorer tomorrow if people stop buying chocolate made from their cocoa. It will merely drive them from poverty to destitution, or to other crops / activities that may have an even higher risk of child labor such as mining. Consumers need to be better informed about the issue of child labor and understand that it can't be fixed overnight.”

“…We're working to make cocoa sustainable, and until it is, the farmers and their kids need people to keep eating chocolate.”

Proposed EU regulation

Under proposed European legislation - EU Regulation 1169/2011 on Food Information to Consumers (FIC) ​ – ingredients that constitute over 50% of a food are set to be mandatorily labelled. This will include chocolate containing over 50% cocoa if passed.

The European Cocoa Association (ECA) says mandatory origin labeling of cocoa products is pointless​ and could even lead to a 30% price hike in consumer chocolate prices because separate sourcing for specific origins and increased storage capacity would be required.

It argues that it is unrealistic for companies to label cocoa origins because beans are regularly blended from various origins and manufacturers often change sourcing practices to secure a better price.

Ornelas said: ”It’s not really a concern how much money they have to spend. It’s not rocket science – you have multimillion corporations making money off the back of poor people in Africa.”

The European Commission will discuss which products are to be included or exempt from the rule in a report due December 13 this year.

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4 comments

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chokalet bizness

Posted by Girish Goyal,

Chocalet bizness agensis rewaird frome pali

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Fair Wages to combat Poverty and Forced Labor

Posted by Sarah,

This doesn't sound like a boycott of West Africa cocoa to me. The article says that cooperatives and companies paying fair wages are recommended on the list. Nobody is trying to punish the farmers, but instead urge corporations to take more responsibility for the situation they helped create. These companies can afford to pay a fair price for Cocoa. They build a school and say that they are fighting child labor. Instead of "charity" for these communities, we need to be sure farmers are paid well for the work they do so that they can support their families and strengthen their communities.
I find it frustrating when corporations threaten to pass along costs of doing business to consumers. The chocolate industry isn't worried about how expensive origin labels are, they are worried that transparency for consumers will tear down the velvet curtain they have protecting their practices from the public.

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Transparency yes, but we should support West African cocoa growers too!

Posted by Barbara Crowther,

Transparency on the origins of cocoa (and other ingredients) in chocolate, can a good and useful thing in enabling informed choice. Especially if it is not just about the geographical origin, but the conditions under which it has been grown and traded. However, demanding origin labelling as part of a campaign to boycott West African cocoa is not something I would support. Whilst it is true that the risk of child labour may be higher in some origins than others, there is a wide variety of practice on the ground in local communities in every country, and increasing efforts by farmers organisations themselves to improve children's wellbeing in their villages. Sweeping boycotts of West African cocoa would only throw many farming communities into an even deeper crisis, and potentially just push the problem of child labour and exploitation into other, even less scrutinised industries. Much better instead to offer information that gives chocolate lovers an opportunity to support farmers' efforts to give their children a better future, in the places where it is most needed.

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