Slavery in the chocolate industry: what can we do?

10796_919867701367902_1694464624302436629_n(Prelude…have you signed up for our Easter Monday Easter Egg Hunt in Ballymena yet?! )

Why there is slavery in the cocoa industry…and what we do to stop it?

How could child exploitation happen in this day and age?

How could an industry estimated to be worth $110 billion per year be unaware of child exploitation in its production lines? Cocoa is grown in small amounts on family farms, then bought by a seller and sold on the market. This makes the supply chain very hard to trace and once traced it is very hard for corporations or governments to guarantee each farm is complying with labour standards – there are so many to account for! However, now that the exploitation is being exposed, there are no more excuses for allowing this to happen. In order to deal with it effectively, let’s take a look at the causes. 

The main cause of kids like Wambi being enslaved is poverty.

  1. The cocoa farmers’ poverty

Cocoa farmers make on average less than $2 a day (below the poverty line) so they resort to child labour to keep prices competitive. They are so poor that they borrow food on credit and struggle to pay off the interest and give 50-66% of the crop to the landowner.[1]

This poverty is maintained due to the fact that they have very little weight on the world market because they are often misinformed. They neither have access to current information on the market price of cocoa nor own scales to accurately weigh. Their bargaining power is very low, meaning that the middlemen who sell to international chocolate companies do not pay the farmers market price. Cocoa is so essential to their survival that they must accept whatever price is offered, thus when prices of cocoa and chocolate on the international market fall their profit margin falls.

  1. The poverty the children are born into.

Children in West Africa are intensely poor, beginning work at a young age to help support their families. In this way children are easily lured into going to work on cocoa farms despite the obvious risk of not returning. Children are often willing to go and parents are willing to sell them out of desperation and traffickers monopolise on their misfortune.

  1. Children are also targeted because they are poor.

Traffickers often abduct young children from small villages of the neighbouring countries that are some of the poorest in the world: Mali and Burkina Faso. This is because they are often alone when working for their families or travelling to get food or water and are also not likely to be reported or chased up by the police in the same way that a wealthier child would be.


What needs to change and who needs to make that change?

The ultimate question is whether slave-free chocolate is even possible – and if it is possible, what changes should be made…and by whom?


The cover up

Cocoa is an essential cash crop for poor producing countries and is also a key export.[2] Governments are reluctant to do anything that will eat into their profits. For example, UNICEF officials say the Ivory Coast Government are “in denial” over the problem after its military coup, adding that they can’t do much because plantations are small, inaccessible and difficult to regulate[3]

Since journalists exposed exploitation in the chocolate industry it has become increasingly secretive and difficult for reporters to access farms due to the government. In 2010, the Ivorian authorities detaining 3 journalists after they published an article exposing corruption in cocoa. This is because 60% of the country’s revenue is cocoa. This passive attitude to the issue of child slavery is perpetuated as the demand for cheap cocoa increases and thus the cost of cocoa is lowered.

What is being done?

In 2012, as part of reforms to cocoa, the Ivorian government have enforced a minimum price for cocoa which is 60% of the international market price $1.5/kg. While not yet enough, it is a step forward and makes budgeting ahead more possible.

Chocolate corporations themselves led this change; both corporate responsibility and self-interest pushed them to put pressure on the government. Growing cocoa is becoming unsustainable (the average age of cocoa farmers is 51, just below average life expectancy) and plantations need investment and regeneration. Due to this, West Africa’s cocoa supply is failing to meet demand. This can only be solved by investing in the bottom of the chain by educating farmers.

What should be done?

Both social and structural change is needed to address exploitative child labour.

Governments needs structural change so that there are enforced trade regulations. Currently voluntary self-regulation is ineffective. A mandatory certification system for cocoa with a clear set of standards that is independently verified and audited is the ideal.

In terms of social change the most important change that should be made is education. The first is education for the farmers. It may sound surprising, but farmers seem unaware of the illegality of children working on the farms. The second is educating the children working on the farms. Depriving children of education has short and long term effects for West African countries. Without education children on the cocoa farms remain in a poverty trap, from which they cannot escape. By investing in the future of their children the population will become wealthier as they have the tools to escape the poverty trap. Hence, West African countries can become a serious competitor on the world market.


What are corporations doing?

Since exploitation in the cocoa industry was exposed by journalists in the early 2000’s, certification labels such as Fairtrade have become popular and more corporations have started their own projects to help combat this issue. However, relatively little is spent on combatting this issue. The industry still lacks transparency and fails to address the problem. Other corporations have addressed the claims and made changes but Tulane universities study shows that the industry effort to stop child labour is “uneven”, “incomplete” and 97% ivory coast farmers not been reached[4] and less than 4% in cocoa regions of the ivory coast have been helped. [5]

In reality it is the chocolate companies that have the power to end child labour and the ability to pay cocoa farmers a living wage for their product so that they are not encouraged to use slave labour.

Why is more not being done?

Tracking through a supply chain is complex. However, this is not an excuse, as long as they are gaining profit from this exploitation as much profit as is necessary should be invested in tracking the supply chain and combatting this problem.

For other corporations the reason is more selfish. Corporations don’t comply with the laws surrounding chocolate as it costs more to pay labourers a fair wage and reduces profits. Currently farmers only make 3% of the chocolate profit whereas the supermarket’s profit margin is 43%[6]. Public pressure will help to improve this.

What should be being done?

Due to the fact that slavery occurs in the context of complex local and international economic issues the right solution is not always obvious as the children are the most vulnerable and therefore are likely to be the first hurt. Therefore this needs to be kept this in mind when we are making changes. In this way we need to be careful to not only be stopping the slavery and exploitation of the current children but also to be making these changes sustainable so that slavery does not keep reoccurring. This should be done by providing a living wage for both farmers and workers to drag them both out of poverty and providing education and training for both that ensures that they do not fall back into the poverty trap. An example of corporations combatting this issue in a sustainable way is Nestlé’s “cocoa plan” and Cargill’s the “cocoa promise” (LINK) as well as Fairtrade providing more than the living wage so that cooperatives can invest in things such as healthcare and education.

Corporations should increase procurement targets for ethical cocoa or implement equal assurance measures to increase farmer income, combat cocoa smallholder poverty and build local capacity in detecting and remediating child labour and trafficking


Consumers are essential to diminishing these injustices. It may seem difficult to fully address the most horrendous abuses occurring across the world but that does not mean that our duty to try is reduced. While I was writing this article someone said to me “That’s awful, but the chocolate is already there and someone is going to eat it so it mays well be me”. But chocolate is a luxury, no one has to eat it. We as consumers can make this change, we can vote with our purses and this will force both governments and corporations into action.

Educating ourselves and others

We can change this. In addition to educating ourselves we can educate others. We are responsible for raising the awareness of others. We can sign petitions, write to both government and countries and buy certified products.

Buying traffik-free products

We have a voice that we need to use. We cannot just wait for chocolate corporations to develop a conscience. Whether we choose to boycott or not, by buying Fairtrade/UTZ/Rainforest Alliance/Trade Aid, we are increasing demand for traffik-free products. If demand for fair trade increases and for uncertified products it falls supply will soon follow forcing corporations who have not voluntarily opted into corporate social responsibility to do so.

By buying ethically sourced chocolate we will be helping to start setting the market price of cocoa higher. As the cocoa farmers are at the wrong end of the supply chain, they have no voice in the international market. We do, we can help to increase the market price for them.


Combatting child exploitation in the cocoa industry requires a sustainable approach from consumers, the government and chocolate corporations. Each of these players in the market are interdependent and have the power to produce a change in each other. Corporations that sell the cocoa products have strength in guiding policy. By putting pressure on the corporations to be ethically minded and guarantee their supply chain is fair we will thus put pressure on governments to follow suite. It is up to all of us to be responsible as profiteers and funders of an industry that is built on child exploitation.

Coming on Friday: an exclusive Co Couture chocolate recipe for you to use this Easter!

Remember to sign up for our Easter Egg Hunt in Ballymena on Easter Monday. ALL welcome. 


 Read Wambi’s story here.



[1] 48


[3] World Cocoa Foundation, 2012


[5] Humphrey Hawksley. 10 Nov. 2011. “Ivory Coast cocoa farms child labour: Little change.” BBC