Child Labor and Chocolate

Are You Supporting Child Labor By Eating Chocolate?
May 29, 2014

Are You Supporting Child Labor By Eating Chocolate?

By Carol Wiley

Chocolate seems like such sweet treat, but for many children in West Africa, it’s not. A 2002 study published by the International Labour Organization and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimated 284,000 children on cacao farms in West Africa were “either involved in hazardous work, unprotected or unfree, or have been trafficked,” according to a 2007 report by the U.S. State Department.

In response, the World Cocoa Foundation and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association agreed to a voluntary plan of action, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, to develop and take actions to fight labor exploitation in West Africa. However, progress was slow. It wasn’t until after research funded by the U.S. Department of Labor found that over 1.75 million children worked on cacao farms during the 2008‑2009 cacao growing season in the two largest cacao-producing countries, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, that the governments of those two countries, the International Chocolate and Cocoa Industry, and the U.S. Department of Labor signed the Declaration of Joint Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. The goal is to reduce by at least 70% the worst forms of child labor in cacao production by 2020.


In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, more than 1.5 million farmers grow cacao, according to Responsible Cocoa, most on farms of less than five acres. Monitoring the labor practices of every farm is impossible. In addition, the traditional supply chain involves farmers delivering bags of cacao to local buying stations, where bags of several farmers are combined before being delivered to a cacao exporter. The exporter then combines bags from several local buying stations into batches before shipping to a cacao processor. Thus, the mass-produced chocolate that you buy at the store usually contains cacao beans from various farms that may use different farming and labor practices.

Fair Trade Certifications

Is fair-trade certification the answer to the problem? Are you aware that about 10 organizations offer fair trade certification for cocoa? And that the requirements and standards of each organization are different? And that none of the certifiers can guarantee absence of child labor because it’s impossible to monitor all the farms?

Certification does have advantages, and certainly certifying bodies don’t want child labor in their supply chains and respond if they find it, but it’s also important to understand the limitations of certification. For example, fair-trade organizations work only with co-ops of farmers, not individual farmers, mostly because individuals cannot afford the cost of certification.

Although one goal of certifying bodies is to pay farmers a fair wage, critics of certification point to the cost of running a certification body as a detriment to paying farmers a sustainable wage. The difference between a fair wage and a sustainable wage is that a fair wage is what the farmers need to live now, while a sustainable wage is that plus enough money to sustain cacao production (planting new trees, supporting the ecosystem, building communities, etc.) in a way that cacao production continues in the future.

Another thing to understand about a certification label is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that particular chocolate bar contains 100% certified cacao. Here’s an explanation from the Rainforest Alliance.

Although several of the large chocolate companies, including Mars, Inc. and The Hershey Company have committed to sourcing only certified cacao by 2020, chocolate expert Clay Gordon, author of Discover Chocolate and founder of The Chocolate Life, considers the companies’ approach disingenuous. He points out that the companies have an inherent tension between their obligation to get the best return for shareholders by sourcing the supplies at the lowest possible cost and the fair certification goal of paying farmers more. Gordon also believes the companies are relying too much on the certification organizations and should have company representatives on the ground inspecting farms.

Your Choices Matter

What can you do? First, don’t buy mass-produced chocolate. Yeah, that’s tough since more than 90% of chocolate is mass-produced. Look for small, artisan chocolate makers who know the source of their cacao.

Also look for chocolate made with directly sourced cacao. Direct-source or direct-trade chocolate companies obtain cacao beans by working directly with a cacao farm(s). Company representatives visit the farm and maintain control of the cacao from the farm to final chocolate production. Read more about direct trade. You might also hear this referred to as craft bean-to-bar chocolate. Here’s a list of some craft bean-to-bar companies.

You can also look for chocolate made from cacao grown in the Americas, as no child labor issues have been documented on farms in Central and South America. (The only place that cacao grows in the U.S. is Hawaii.) Some manufacturers use single-source cacao and display the country of origin on the product’s label.

As for paying cacao farmers fairly, if you buy chocolate that costs less than $4 for 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces), you can be sure farmers aren’t being paid fairly, according to Gordon. Chocolate made from cacao from farmers being paid sustainable wages is likely to cost even more. So, when you’re tempted to pick up that cheap chocolate bar, think about the people at the start of the supply chain who make chocolate possible.

More Resources

The Story of Chocolate includes documents about progress of the Declaration of Joint Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

The Dark Side of Chocolate is a 2010 documentary film documenting forced child labor.

Cocoa-Nomics Explained: Unwrapping the Chocolate Industry – This infographic from the CNN Freedom Project shows that farmers receive only 3% of the price of the average chocolate bar.

About the Author

Carol Wiley is a freelance writer in Seattle, Washington, and writes on a wide range of topics.

This article is courtesy of Massage Cop Productions, LLC.