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Under Guise of Combating Slavery, One Human Rights Group Is Colluding With the Exploitative Chocolate Industry

Kevin Bales, founder of Free the Slaves, champions his reform of the chocolate industry and halting child labor in West Africa. But no such thing has happened.
 
 
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On September 9, Kevin Bales, founder of Free The Slaves, was on Democracy Now! making comments about his organization and the chocolate industry that were either willfully naïve or simply dishonest.

Bales goes around fundraising, flogging his book and promoting himself on the basis that he has successfully reformed the chocolate industry and largely halted its use of child labor in West Africa. But no such thing has happened.

In his DN interview Bales' said that "instead of, say, attacking corporations and boycotting corporations," his group was "bringing them into the mix and getting them to pay for the work on the ground."

He went on to claim: "[W]e have done this with the chocolate industry to what I think is enormous success. And about $50 million has been transferred out of chocolate company profits over the last seven years into work on the ground in West Africa to remove slavery and child labor from cocoa production. Now, that's money that never would have come to human rights, never would have come to anti-slavery work, if we hadn't brought [corporations] in at the beginning."

Bales was here referring to the "Harkin-Engel Protocol," a toothless, voluntary, self-policing agreement created by the chocolate industry and signed on September 19, 2001. The Protocol named, after two America politicians, was the industry's way of avoiding binding legislation that would've required labeling of chocolate as "child labor free." Through the protocol Big Chocolate promised to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2005. But the chocolate companies missed that deadline and the Protocol was extended to 2008.

The Protocol led to the creation of an NGO called the International Cocoa Initiative. Along with all the big chocolate and confectionery corporations, the ICI board includes Kevin Bales' group Free The Slaves. The ICI claims to be working hard to prevent the use of child labor in West African cocoa production -- but it is not.

In 2007, as this Protocol was coming to fruition, Fortune magazine sent photojournalist Jessica Dimmock and me to Côte d'Ivoire (where half the world's Chocolate comes from) to investigate the situation. We found nothing like the happy situation described by Kevin Bales.

We saw absolutely no evidence that any of the $50 million that Kevin Bales brags about has hit the ground or is helping children in any way.