Bitter harvest: African child labour and the chocolate factory
Poverty has allowed the trade of 'chocolate slaves' to flourish and the industry is not doing enough to stop it, say critics
It’s a guilty pleasure for many of us, but lurking behind each bar of chocolate is the uncomfortable truth that it may have been produced by child labour in West Africa.
Ghana and Ivory Coast are the world’s two largest cocoa producers, with their combined production contributing more than 60% of the world’s annual supply of cocoa. But the average cocoa farmer in Ghana earns about R10 a day, a paltry amount even in West Africa.
Endemic poverty has allowed the trade of “chocolate slaves” to flourish. According to the 2018 Cocoa Barometer, written by 15 European non-profit organisations, there are an estimated 2.1 million children working in cocoa fields in Ivory Coast and Ghana alone, of whom about 16,000 are forced into the trade, either by family members or child traffickers.
A report by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour found that 64% of children on cocoa farms were under the age of 14 and many were unable to attend school, instead sent to toil on farms in hazardous conditions, working long hours in the blazing sun and using machetes to crack open cocoa pods.
The chocolate industry, estimated to be worth $100bn globally, has a longstanding problem with child labour, as the majority of farm owners struggle to make ends meet and resort to the use of children to keep their prices competitive. Fairtrade International says just 7% of all cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast earn a living income – defined as having enough income for a household to eat nutritiously throughout the year, drink safe water and have access to healthcare. This equates to about $7,300 a year.
The problem has been compounded by wild swings in the price of cocoa: overproduction caused the world market price of cocoa to plunge 40% in mid-2016, when cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast saw their income decline by as much as 36%, according to the Cocoa Barometer. The report claims that the cocoa price drop saved “Big Chocolate” makers such as Mondelez, owner of Cadbury, Mars and Nestlé about $4.7bn in buying costs in 2017, yet none of it was passed on to consumers through price cuts.
Antonie Fountain and Friedel Huetz-Adams, authors of the report, write: “Though hard data is absent, it is safe to assume that some actors are making a lot of money off the price fall, while farmers and sustainability suffer. Where did this money go?”
Nestlé, which made 89.8bn Swiss francs from sales in 2017, denies banking the cash from the fall in prices. It says the profit margins on its confectionery products remained stable between 2016 and 2017, at about 14%. A Nestlé spokesperson says: “We strongly oppose any kind of child exploitation, and we’re committed to preventing and eliminating it in our supply chain. However, we realise that as long as child labour still exists on cocoa farms, there is more to be done.”
A spokesperson for Mars says: “We do not condone the use of forced labour, human rights abuses or deforestation practices in our supply chain. Mars has been working to address these complex challenges on our own and through collaboration for many years ... and recently announced a strategy that outlines what we will be doing to improve farmer income and protect forests and people in the supply chain.”
Mondelez says that by 2022 it will have invested $400m to reach 200,000 cocoa farmers and a million people in cocoa-growing communities, “creating a stronger and more sustainable supply chain for cocoa, working with a number of partners, including Fairtrade, to deliver the programme on the ground”.
Under the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, governments, cocoa producers and other international organisations pledged to reduce the worst kinds of child labour in Ivory Coast and Ghana by 70%. The deadline for meeting this goal was 2005, then pushed back to 2008, then 2010, before a final deadline was extended to 2020. The Barometer report claims that “not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labour by 2020”.
While most chocolate makers have introduced programmes with the objective of reducing child labour – from Nestlé’s cocoa plan, which aims to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and the quality of their products, to Mondelez’s Cocoa Life, which looks to empower farmers by improving productivity and cost effectiveness – the Cocoa Barometer says “there is no evidence at present that farmers are earning more due to these commitments”.
Nick Weatherill, executive director of the International Cocoa Initiative, a Geneva-based non-profit organisation set up in 2012 with a mandate to facilitate the Harkin-Engel Protocol, says that while there is a lot of good work happening in the industry, it is not happening “on the right scale”. The 2020 deadline was therefore unlikely to be met.
“One of the problems with the 70%-by-2020 target was that the people setting it didn’t understand what they were dealing with,” Weatherill says. “The sustainable development goal of eradicating child labour by 2025 is more realistic, but I’m still cautious. To meet this target everyone, including chocolate makers, governments and the countries where the chocolate is consumed, would need to double down on their efforts and investment.”
Launched 13 years ago, anti-slavery chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely was founded by Dutch film producer Maurice Dekkers and investigative journalist Teun “Tony” van de Keuken, who wanted to highlight modern-day slavery in the chocolate industry. The company’s ethos is based on five principles: to know where the beans in your chocolate bar come from; to pay farmers more than the bare minimum; to build trust and commitment with farm owners; to guarantee the farmer at least five years of sales; and to invest in training to increase the farmers’ yields.
Tony’s is currently the bestselling chocolate in the Netherlands, with revenue of €55m and net profits of £2.48m in the year to September.
While Fairtrade chocolate promotes better living conditions for cocoa farmers by paying them a premium ($200 per ton of cocoa beans), which goes into a communal fund for farmers to use as they see fit, it cannot guarantee that the product has not involved child labour. Henk Jan Beltman, Tony’s chief executive, says that while he encourages people to buy Fairtrade as a “first step in the right direction”, it is “simply a starting point”.
By focusing on the fine details of its supply, Tony’s can trace the origin of all the cocoa it buys, from bean to bar, to ensure it knows exactly where and how the cocoa was produced. So while the company cannot claim to be 100% child-labour free, given how widespread the problem is, 100% of the cocoa in its bars is traceable to its partner co-operatives. Tony’s also pays above the market price for its beans, adding the Fairtrade premium plus a “Tony premium”, reset every September, of at least $175 a ton in Ghana and $400 a ton in Ivory Coast. In 2017, this amounted to an additional €3.5m paid to co-operatives and their farmers.
Weatherill says that while certification bodies such as Fairtrade have traditionally played a major role in improving the cocoa industry, by putting more money into farmers’ pockets, “it has been a blunt instrument when it comes to child labour, because it doesn’t address all of the drivers sufficiently”.
Tony’s says it did not reap any of the financial rewards of the 2016-17 cocoa price plunge because it chose to share the gains with farmers and retailers, reducing the price it charged supermarkets in order to improve commercial relationships. “When there is a price decrease, the money should stay with the farmers,” says Beltman. “If chocolate makers are keeping it to enrich the company, they can’t be proud of this. It’s something I would never do. At the moment, the business model is driven by profit maximisation ... and one of the undesirable consequences of this approach is exploitation in the cocoa supply chain.”
However, Beltman doesn’t wish to paint a negative picture of his rivals. “There are lots of nice people working at these chocolate companies, and it is difficult for them to change overnight; they are publicly listed and have to invest billions of dollars to implement change. But we have a collective responsibility to make a change and at the moment the big choco makers are moving too slowly.”
Beltman’s ambition for Tony’s is “world domination” he says, expanding into more countries in a bid to drive growth. Its turnover for 2017-18 fell short of its target of €67.4m. “Although most businesses would be over the moon with our growth rate it was actually disappointing to us,” he says. “We need to be financially fit as a company to make an impact and to set an example to other chocolate makers that you can still grow despite having an ethical standpoint. If we want to inspire companies to do the same we need to be economically powerful.”
– © The Daily Telegraph