Valentine’s Day chocolates – product of slave labour?
They are lethal luxuries. Those innocuous and delicious-looking chocolates given to loved ones all over the world on Valentine's Day are, more often than not, the result of incredible human suffering. Their main ingredient, cocoa, is often produced by child slaves in Africa.
"It is absolutely certain that the box of chocolates you got for Valentine’s was produced by slave labour if it does not have a fair trade label," Steve Chalke of Stop the Traffik, an anti-trafficking NGO, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa on the sidelines of a United Nations forum on human trafficking in Vienna.
When people think of human trafficking, they primarily think about the sex trade. But they forget that trafficking is a factor permeating all trades – be it sex, agriculture, domestic services, manufacture of fabrics – or chocolate.
"Chocolate is a prime example – it is cheap, and it is something many people buy – it makes the otherwise overwhelming statistics more personal," Chalke said.
According to UN estimates, at least 2.5 million people are exploited by forced labour at any point in time, a majority of them children.
In Ivory Coast, which produces 43 percent of the world’s cocoa, about 12,000 boys from countries like Mali or Togo work as slaves on cocoa farms, the UN said. Activists put the number as high as 200,000.
"Even if it were ten, it would be ten too many," Chalke said of the modern-day slaves who are often as young as nine years of age.
The parents of those children are duped by the traffickers into believing their boys would receive an honest job, regular pay and an education, none of which ever happens.
Child slaves on the farm face appalling working conditions with 12 to 14 hours of severe manual labour, cutting down cocoa pods using big knives or machetes, thereby risking severe injuries which can often maim them permanently, Global Exchange, a fair trade organisation said. Some are also killed and many are beaten or abused.
"With every bar of chocolate you eat there is blood on your teeth," Chalke warned.
Many problems were linked to the insufficient revenues cocoa farmers receive, even in days of ever-rising prices for raw cocoa on the global markets, making it difficult for the family-owned farms to meet their needs.
But what is the answer? Dump those nougat hearts and forswear chocolate forever?
"No", activists say. "Buy fair."
By buying fairly traded chocolate, consumers can exert pressure on the chocolate industry, as well as ensure better pay for the farmers.
The heat is on for the chocolate industry, that back in the year 2000 promised to "eradicate" the problem of forced labour, to clean up its act. "They have done nothing. They say it is too difficult to monitor," Chalke said. "But if it were their children, they would have done it overnight."
Governments are also slowly waking up to the problem, with the United States a leading force on the issue.
Companies must clean up their supply chains, Mark Lagon, head of the US State Department’s office on human trafficking said, with consumer pressure leading the way.
"If consumers can change the behaviour of the fishing industry towards dolphin-friendly tuna fishing, it is more than equally legitimate if it was child labour," Lagon said.
Tax incentives for fairly traded chocolates, far from an exotic niche product with large chains today producing their own fair trade brands, could be another way forward, activists suggested.
Slave-free chocolate can make the only pang of guilt associated with your next choc the question of what it will do to your waistline.
[Copyright dpa 2008]