When you walk by a chocolate shop, the scent of cocoa aroma busts down the door of your nostrils compelling you to buy. The Aztecs first grew cocoa thousands of years ago, and the world has since traded it as a luxury item, commodified and distributed as an integral part of the global economy.
But there is a dark side to the chocolate industry. Hidden beneath cartoon advertisements and televisual allure – multinational organisations in charge of this huge operation are using slaves to grow and pick cocoa pods, betting and building business empires on the ignorance of its customers. As we approach Halloween, Ayn Riggs of Slave Free Chocolate explains in 12 questions how it happens and what we can do.
What is Slave-free chocolate?
Chocolate that doesn’t have the Worst Forms of Child Labor including trafficking in its supply chain. In other words, chocolate produced with ethically sourced cocoa nibs.
What persuaded you to start Slave-Free Chocolate.org?
I heard about the situation fairly randomly while in London in 2007. Upon my return to the U.S., I thought I’d do some research on the topic but found nearly nothing and nothing that targeted consumers. Just shrugging my shoulders and carrying on with my day seemed cold-hearted, so I started Slave Free Chocolate with the purpose to enlighten consumers on this situation as this is a consumer problem. Awareness of a problem is the first step to social change.
Read: Stan And Slavery
How big a problem is chocolate slavery and who should be concerned and why?
Unfortunately, since the first audit was done in the early 2000’s the number of children at risk for falling under what the UN deems The Worst Forms of Child Labor (Children who are working in unsafe conditions, with no medical care and are not going to school) has risen in the last 18 years instead of declined. It has gone from 1.8 million at risk to 2.3 million children. The latest estimated guess of how many of these children are held as slaves is 30,000. We should all be concerned.
What kind of abuse do captured people go through?
Most of the children held in slavery are coerced or duped into working on a farm, only to realize very soon that they aren’t getting paid and can’t leave. Of course in these situations abuse is rampant. I’ve heard reports of children having the bottoms of their feet slashed with razor blades making it impossible to flee. Children being locked in sheds at night and of course reports of beatings. When they do hurt themselves there is no medical care and wounds often get infected.
Why won’t big firms do anything and who are the biggest perpetrators?
Well, profit is the main responsibility of every corporation. The less people are getting paid along the way, the more profit there is at the end of the day. Additionally, the situation is complex. These very poor farms are deep in the bush of Ghana and The Ivory Coast. The difficult logistics make it easy to sweep the situation under the rug as it is hard for the UN to audit and journalists to reach. The big firms had a big opportunity to act after they signed the Harkin Engel Protocol but instead chose only to implement some paltry measures of no consequence which allowed them to wait out the activists.
Can I say without question that everyone’s government is involved and that slavery is in effect a product of our tax money?
That is a good question but I can only speak for the U.S. Tax money went into the creation of the Harkin Engel Protocol and the U.S. doesn’t import cocoa from The Ivory Coast but it doesn’t make chocolate so it wouldn’t.
Are there some governments more involved than others?
Both the governments of Ghana and The Ivory Coast are doing what they can with little resources. Remember that these are poor countries to begin with. Slavery is illegal in both and they do have a system of justice for traffickers. The chocolate companies could do much more in regards to helping these governments. Interpol raids on the border where the children are trafficked in would be an example. Interpol raids cost money. The chocolate companies have it.
So is it safe to say that anything chocolate related, be it cocoa dustings, cake, biscuits have all passed through slave hands? If it’s in your kitchen and it’s chocolate, it’s not slave-free chocolate?
If not actual slaves at least children who aren’t going to schools, work with dangerous machetes and pesticides with no access to medical care and probably without clean water or even electricity, yes.
What is the one thing central governments can do to put a stop to this?
Start the conversation of taking cocoa and other crops off the commodities market. If the U.S. courts would uphold the Alien Tort Act, which would hold these companies responsible for using slave labor, that would be a game-changer.
If someone wants to know more and wishes to counter chocolate slavery, where can they go and what can they do?
There are many easy things one can do to promote awareness of this issue. You can speak up in the market by asking where the ethically sourced chocolate is and then explain to the store manager how you want to spend your money. You can participate in Reverse Trick or Treating. Educators can use the topic for current events. Journalists can write about it. You can appeal to the chocolate manufacturers in your country.
Are there any small to large companies across the world we can support who ethically source their cocoa?
Yes! Although there are exceptions to every rule, if you look for the following things, you can feel better about your chocolate choices. Look for a Fair Trade or organic label on a bar. Also, look to see if the company tells you where the cocoa is sourced from. There are 1000’s of small bean to bar businesses that purchase the more expensive cocoa from countries that don’t have a problem with child labor. They proudly put it on the label, i.e. 70% Costa Rican dark cocoa. The biggest ethical manufacturers are Guittard, Tony’s Chocolonely, Equal Exchange and Divine.
What is the next phase for SFC?
After Reverse Trick or Treating is over, we are going to work on innovative ways for chocolatiers to also involve themselves in activist programs. And, we’re always open to new ideas!
You can find out more about Ayn Riggs, Slave Free Chocolate and how to make better choices at slavefreechocolate.org.