Organic Consumers Association

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Chocolate-Lovers: Cocoa Industry Still Employs Child Labor under Slave-Like Conditions

You gaze at each other, illuminated softly by candlelight. Music plays in the background. Slowly pulling back the ribbon from your gift, your sweetheart glows with delight and anticipation…until the wrapping falls away from the box of chocolate to reveal a blank spot where the slave-free chocolate label belongs.

Even though the chocolate industry committed to ending the worst forms of child labor in cocoa production by today — July 1, 2008 — the slave-free label is still missing from lots of chocolate boxes…and chocolate bars and ice cream and syrup and other products made with cocoa. And it’s not just because industry talked Congress into a voluntary agreement in place of the 2001 legislation that would have created a mandatory slave-free label for chocolate, which was passed in the House of Representatives by a landslide. It is also because virtually none of the chocolate you buy as a consumer could be certified as “slave-free” if that label existed today.

In one sense, things aren’t that different now from the way Congress intended to protect us from tainted chocolate back in 2001. If you find a blank space glaring back from the spot where the Fair Trade certified label belongs on any cocoa product, you know it has not been produced under standards that prohibit abusive child labor.

The chocolate industry’s answer to the legislative threat of slave-free labeling was its 2001 pledge to voluntarily certify cocoa produced without the worst forms of child labor by July 1, 2005, known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, after the two Congressmen who championed the original legislation. When they failed to meet this deadline, it was extended to July 1, 2008 and limited to 50 percent of the Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana.

While industry and governments have taken some steps to address the issue, it is too little too slow. The very title of the Harkin-Engel Protocol commits the industry to “…Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor,” yet for over seven years children have continued to languish in slavery and consumers have waited for untainted chocolate. It is also rather shocking that the cocoa industry had the chutzpah to officially commit to ending just half of slavery, not all slavery, in the cocoa fields of these two countries by July 2008.

With the next deadline rapidly approaching, the chocolate manufacturers have redefined the word “certification” to mean “data collection.” Industry even titled its 2007 version of its definition a “certification concept.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be released from our moral and legal responsibilities by redefining them? We can hear the chuckles about the “concept” concept forming around water coolers nationwide already. “Think a repayment ‘concept’ will work for my mortgage?” “Will the boss buy into a punctuality ‘concept’?”

Members of the public are broadly familiar with the characteristics of organic and other certification systems, and know that certification is not a ‘concept’ open to interpretation. Certification systems include elements such as specific standards required of industry participants and independent, third party institutions that confirm compliance with standards.

But the bottom line is that, as a report funded by the US Department of Labor stated, the industry’s current definition of certification is “a misnomer.” What industry is currently pursuing under its own definition of certification is not truly certification that there is no abusive child labor. It is a survey to determine the prevalence of abusive child labor. And, for that reason, industry is at risk of missing the upcoming deadline yet again. Data collection is not the goal; the goal is protecting children from the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa fields.

Nearly 60 organizations and companies concerned with child welfare have called upon major chocolate manufacturers to sign the Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing. The Commitment includes requirements that would reach the goal of ensuring that cocoa farming families and workers can live lives of dignity and meet their basic human needs rather than languishing in poverty while industry exploits the dismal price of cocoa in order to rake in profits. The Commitment also requires truly independent, third party certification.

Some have gone even further, by calling on chocolate companies to start sourcing Fair Trade certified chocolate. Fair Trade certification standards prohibit the use of abusive child labor and slavery. Just as important, Fair Trade also addresses the fact that cocoa prices are too low to fully cover the cost of the labor it takes to grow it. The Fair Trade certification system guarantees farmers a stable, decent price for their cocoa.

It is especially disturbing that the companies involved market specifically to children, making them unknowing participants in the exploitation of their peers. One troubling example is Chicago-based World’s Finest Chocolate, the leading producer of school fundraising chocolate bars in the country, does not source Fair Trade certified cocoa. World’s Finest Chocolate, a company that bases its seemingly squeaky-clean corporate image on supporting children’s education, should end its hypocrisy and start producing a Fair Trade certified chocolate bar to fundraise for children’s education. It is time for farmers who grow the cocoa in World’s Finest Chocolate’s chocolate bars to be able to afford to send their own kids to school too.

Go ahead and buy a chocolate gift for the one you love. Cocoa growing communities are depending on you. But from now onward, look for chocolate with the Fair Trade certification label. Because when the object of your affection pulls back the ribbon on your box of chocolate, looks at you, and sighs, “you shouldn’t have…” you don’t want your beloved to mean it.

Adrienne Fitch-Frankel is the Fair Trade Director of Global Exchange, a national human rights organization based in San Francisco.

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