Slavery Free Chocolate?
Depending on how you look at it, the chocolate industry has either found its soul or dodged a very large bullet.
Last summer, reports surfaced about West African farms exploiting child slaves to pick the cocoa that provides the chocolate industry's lifeblood. In response, the industry entered into an extensive agreement with the U.S. government and several nonprofit groups to combat child slavery. An optimist would applaud "Big Chocolate" for admitting that it has been profiting from child slave labor and pledging to stop. A cynic would say that the industry succeeded in polishing its image while avoiding meaningful sanctions or compulsory changes in how it does business.
The problem of child slavery and indentured servitude in the coffee and cocoa industries in Ivory Coast, where half of the world's cocoa is grown on about 600,000 plantations, is nothing new. UNICEF published a report on the problem back in 1998, and in 2000 the U.S. State Department estimated that 15,000 children were actively enslaved on cocoa farms. In September of that year, British television aired a short but powerful documentary on the subject.
But the rest of world knew hardly anything about it until last summer, when two reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series outlining the brutal conditions suffered by boys as young as nine who work in the cocoa fields. The series explained how slave traders would lure boys from Mali with promises of high wages and gifts of bicycles in exchange for picking beans from the cacao trees in Ivory Coast. Frequently the boys were told they could earn as much as $175 a year (about five times what they could make in the same period in their home countries), and could leave at any time. But once on the plantations, some of the boys were rarely paid, and more often beaten with chains, whips and switches. When they tried to leave, they were beaten and sometimes killed.
At first, the chocolate industry's trade group, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, said it knew nothing about slave labor in West Africa. When Inquirer reporters confronted them with their evidence, they admitted that it might actually be a problem. But they downplayed its extent. And they repeatedly insisted they were not responsible for the problem because the chocolate companies do not own the plantations, they just buy the beans.
The Inquirer series got the attention of Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who crafted a rider to an agriculture appropriations bill that happened to be on the floor the week the series came out. The rider set aside $250,000 to institute a system of labeling chocolate and cocoa products. Like the "dolphin-safe" labels on tuna, the proposed labels were to read "No child slave labor." Engel's bill passed the House of Representatives in June, and the chocolate industry suddenly became very nervous. Chocolate makers feared such a label would give them a black eye and a multi-billion-dollar public-relations headache. They got so nervous, in fact, that it hired the biggest guns it could find -- former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat -- to lobby Congress before the Senate could pass a similar bill.
The industry made the case that they could not reasonably be expected to know what occurs on any one of 600,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. Some farms use slaves and some use legitimate labor (and some a combination of the two), and the beans picked by each are jumbled together, making it impossible to say whether any cocoa from Ivory Coast is truly slave-free. The industry even played the altruism card: a labeling system, they argued, might well result in a consumer boycott that would cause devastating job losses for legitimate workers and plantation owners.
Some of these arguments were relatively easy to dispatch. According to one aide who was in on the talks between Congress and the industry, when the Chocolate Manufacturers Association said such a labeling system could not be done, Sen. Tom Harkin handed them a stack of documents from TransFair USA, which certifies fairly traded products such as coffee and teas. "You say it's not possible," Harkin allegedly said, "Here it's already working." This reportedly forced the industry to agree to a compromise.
That compromise is a dense, four-year plan to eliminate child slave labor from Ivory Coast cocoa farms. The plan, called the Harkin-Engel Protocol, was signed in September by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, the World Cocoa Foundation, specific manufacturers like Hershey's and Mars (two of the biggest users of Ivory Coast beans), the International Labor Organization and a handful of child-labor activist groups. The six-point Protocol establishes a series of deadlines for addressing and remedying the child slave labor issue (though the first deadline, to finish a study into the scope of the problem, is already more than a month late). A system of independent monitoring and reporting of conditions on selected plantations must be in place by this May, and industry-wide -- albeit voluntary -- standards for public certification of slave-free status will be implemented by the middle of 2005.
According to almost everyone involved, the Protocol is a step in the right direction. At minimum, the industry was forced to admit the problem and publicly take some responsibility. The plan is also remarkable in that it requires the industry to work with NGOs to address the problem, instead of just allowing the industry to police itself. Not only does the plan lay out monitoring plans, it would also establish of a foundation dedicated to finding new ways to combat child slavery, including public programs that would give positive alternatives to kids who have to work to survive.
"We need to be permanently concerned with where cocoa comes from, the impact of cocoa on the environment and how the workers are treated," Larry Graham of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association told Knight Ridder when the agreement was announced. "That's where the industry has changed, permanently and forever."
But the agreement doesn't force the industry to change enough, according to some critics, including some of the Protocol's own signatories. They say the Protocol addresses the symptoms, but not the causes of the problem it proposes to solve.
Children have always worked on plantations in West Africa. Ivory Coast has long been one of the places that children and young adults in the desperately impoverished nation of Mali could go for a year or two, earn a decent wage and learn farming skills, and bring money back to their needy families. But it wasn't until the bottom dropped out of the cocoa market that the promises of jobs turned into the reality of slavery.
Why did cocoa prices plunge from $4.89 per pound in 1977 to about 51 cents per pound today? According to Ivory Coast Prime Minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, it's because multinational chocolate manufacturers have encouraged more and more developing nations to grow cocoa, forcing down the price and driving cocoa farmers to take desperate measures just to save their land. N'Guessan told chocolate manufacturers last May that they would have to pay about 10 times as much for cocoa than they currently do if they want to end the use of forced labor in cocoa production.
When the labeling proposal was making the rounds this summer in D.C., representatives from TransFair USA met with Congressional aides working on the proposal to suggest a fair trade alternative. But in the end, the Harkin-Engel Protocol did not address the fair trade issue or invite any specifically fair-trade NGOs to participate in its "multi-sectoral infrastructure."
"The final result is basically a system for guaranteeing that they comply with International Labor Organization standards, which they should be doing anyway," said Nina Luttinger of TransFair USA. "It does nothing to address the root causes. The trade issue is exactly what is exacerbating the slavery problem."
Luttinger said she is skeptical of the Protocol's lack of specificity for an end result. It calls for "credible, mutually-acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standards of public certification." But, she points out, it does not define what those might look like or how they could be enforced.
Similarly, Save the Children in Canada is disappointed that the Protocol does not go far enough to protect the well-being and rights of children in other countries, or in other agricultural sectors. "It's good that this is happening, and it's an important issue," said Anita Sheth of Save the Children. "But does it tackle all of the issues involved in this problem? Not for me. Enforcement of [ILO standards] is good, but not in a vacuum. What will happen to these children once they are repatriated? If certification is voluntary, who will enforce it? Who will pay for it? How will it affect cocoa prices? What will happen to farmers? These questions are up for grabs. None of this is addressed."
Other critics have pointed out that the Protocol does not forbid the use of slavery in general -- only the enslavement of children. By some measures, the industry could abide by the Protocol and still use cocoa produced with slave labor.
According to Pete Leon, Rep. Engel's legislative director, they do plan to invite groups like TransFair USA back to the table once all of the studies are in and the monitoring and reporting structures are in place (that was, however, news to Luttinger this week). A label is still not out of the question, and Leon implied that the label may be -- or at least look a lot like -- the one TransFair USA issues.
But even if a label does come to be, Sheth points out that other labeling initiatives have failed in the same region. A UN-approved program labelling Sierra Leone diamonds was intended to dry up the black market trade which was helping to finance a bitter civil war in that country. "The program affected public opinion, but it didn't stop the war," Sheth notes.
And there are other questions about the Protocol. For example, wouldn't it be wholly redundant if existing laws were enforced? The U.S. government could simply enforce existing federal laws against the importation of products made with forced child labor, such as Section 307 of The Tariff Act of 1930, which mandates that the U.S. Customs Service refuse entry to any product made "in whole or in part" by forced or indentured labor.
According to the U.S. Customs Service, "Under Section 307, Customs excludes from entry into the commerce of the United States any goods that it has reason to believe were mined, produced, or manufactured with forced or indentured child labor in a foreign country." Wouldn't the Inquirer series, or the 1998 UNICEF report, or the State Department's own 2000 report qualify as sufficient "reason to believe?" Apparently not.
The Tariff Act isn't the only U.S. law that would seem to have an application in this case. President Bill Clinton's further Executive Order No. 13126 in 1999 prohibited federal agencies from buying products made by enslaved children, yet the original list did not include cocoa. If it had, the Department of Defense would be forced to stop spending $1.6 million per year for the M&Ms included in soldiers' ready-to-eat meals. In September, however, the Department of Labor announced that it was "currently reviewing submissions of information received from the public on the use of forced or indentured child labor in the cocoa industry in Ivory Coast," and is considering including cocoa on a future list of banned items under the Executive Order.
Why is the U.S. Customs Service not enforcing these laws? Said one Capitol Hill insider who asked not to be identified, "To be honest with you, everyone knows Customs is no good at it."
And there are international laws, too. "We already have a protocol addressing child slavery. It's called the UN Convention on Children's Rights," said Save The Children's Sheth.
However, for all of her reservations, Sheth agrees that the Protocol could serve as a wake-up call to other industries that might have turned a blind eye to child labor abuses in the past. And if it succeeds, it will be an important learning experience for governments trying to do the right thing, but unsure of where to start.
Brooke Shelby Biggs is the editor of AnitaRoddick.com and the former producer of MotherJones.com.