Human Trafficking and Slavery in the Chocolate Business

Cocoa beansThe Ivory Coast, a small country in West Africa, borders the countries of Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. It is the world’s biggest producer of cocoa, the almond sized beans that are made into chocolate treats for children in America, Europe, and other parts of the world. In the Ivory Coast, over 200,000 children work full-time jobs, many processing the cocoa beans on large farms. A 1998 UNICEF George Polk Award winning report titled “A Taste of Slavery: How Your Chocolate May be Tainted”, revealed that as many as 12,000 of the 200,000 child laborers are quite likely victims of human trafficking and slavery.

How cocoa beans are harvested

Cocoa beans come from the pods of the cocao tree. Workers cut the pods from the trees, slice them open, and scoop out the almond sized beans. The beans are then spread on mats and covered to allow them to ferment. Afterward, the beans are uncovered and put into the sun to dry. Finally, they are bagged and loaded onto trucks to begin the long journey from Africa to America or Europe where they are blended with sugar and milk to make chocolate.

America’s consumption of cocoa beans

America receives 47,000 tons of cocoa bean shipments each year and Americans spend 13 billion dollars each year on chocolate. The largest chocolate producers in the United States are ADM Cocoa in Milwaukee, Barry Callebaut which is headquartered in Zurich Switzerland, Cargill of Minneapolis, and Nestle USA of Glendale California. Although the cocoa beans are purchased from exchanges where beans picked by child workers are mixed with beans from legitimate cocoa bean farms, it is believed that the majority of the beans picked by child slaves are purchased by these manufacturers.

30% of the children under age 15 in sub-Saharan Africa are child laborers with over 5% of the children are victims of human trafficking or slavery. Many of these laborers come from Mail, Burkina, Faso, Benin, and Togo. Most child laborers are 12 to 16 years old but some are as young as 9 years old. The children are lured into the workforce with promises of money, housing, and education.

One boy’s story

Children working in cocoa beansAly Diabate was 12 years old when he was promised a bicycle and $150 a year which he could use to help support his poor parents in Mail. He moved to a 500 acre farm on the Ivory Coast. Aly’s day began when the sun rose and finished when the sun went down. He received regular beatings if his work efforts did not meet the demands of this box. He sustained himself on a diet of bananas. Aly and 18 other boys slept in a 24 by 20 foot room on wooden planks without mattresses. The only window in the room was a small, dry mud enclosed opening with a small hole poked in it to allow air into the room. “We didn’t cry, we didn’t scream,” said Aly. “We thought we had been sold, but we weren’t sure.” Aly explained that he didn’t even know what chocolate was.

Children in cocoa bean fieldOne of Aly’s 18 roommates, Mamadou Traore, said, “Once we entered the room, nobody was allowed to go out. Le Gros (the boss) gave us cans to urinate. He locked the door and kept the key.”

Another of Aly’s roommates told UNICEF, “He tied my hands behind my back with rope and beat me with a piece of wood,” said Siaka, “then he took a small gun, and said, `I’m going to kill you and dump you in a well.’” Siaka claimed that Le Gros, the boss, told them “I bought each of you for 25,000 francs (about $35). So you have to work harder to reimburse me.” Another child laborer confirmed, “The beatings were a part of my life. Anytime they loaded you with bags and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again.”

The regular beatings ensured the child laborers were “broken” like horses. Beatings by bicycle chains seems the punishment of choice. And of course, any child that attempted to escape was caught and severely punished.

UNICEF’s Representative in Côte d’Ivoire, stated in 2007 that: “Children from neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Togo and Mali are brought to Côte d’Ivoire to work in its robust cocoa farming industry, among other outlets for child labor. Their rights are not respected and they are exposed to wide-ranging exploitation and abuse.”. Children are held forcibly on the farms and work up to 100 hours per week. They live on a diet of corn paste and bananas.