Behind The Label: The Unsweet Dark Side of the Chocolate Industry


Column Chocolate is a guilty pleasure in more ways than one.

For most people, chocolate evokes positive associations: indulgence, childhood, Valentine’s Day. But in Western Africa, the connotations are far less positive. There, an estimated 1.8 million child laborers work tirelessly to produce the cocoa that goes into our Easter bunny chocolates.

The ills of the cocoa industry first entered the public eye in the early 2000s, after a BBC documentary called “Slavery: A Global Investigation” highlighted the child labor and slavery abuses occurring on West African cocoa farms. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, child workers in the cocoa industry typically “labor for long, punishing hours, using dangerous tools and facing frequent exposure to dangerous pesticides as they travel great distances in the grueling heat.” In addition, those working as slaves “suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment.”

Cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast

The Good

The BBC documentary sparked a loud, though short-lived, public outcry. Soon after it was released, U.S. House Representative Eliot Engel and Senator Tom Harkin sponsored the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a public-private agreement to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor” (as defined by the International Labour Organization) in the growth and processing of cocoa in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where nearly 75 percent of the world’s cocoa supply is grown. Signed in September 2001, the agreement, better known as the Cocoa Protocol, outlined six actions, each with specific deadlines.

  • Public statement of the need for and terms of an action plan.
  • Formation of multi-sectoral advisory groups. (By December 1, 2001)  
  • Signed joint statement on child labor to be witnessed at the ILO. (By December 1, 2001)
  • Memorandum of cooperation. (By May 1, 2002)
  • Establish a joint foundation. (By July 1, 2002)
  • Building toward credible standards. (By July 1, 2005)

The agreement was signed by multiple stakeholders, from the heads of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and World Cocoa Foundation, to the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, to the presidents of the world’s top eight chocolate manufacturers at the time. It was a significant commitment to ending child labor in the cocoa industry, from the people in positions to effect that change.


The Bad

The Cocoa Protocol was first lauded as a success, but its long-term results have been less than impressive. By the first protocol deadline in 2005, the industry had still failed to implement an industry-wide certification program. An amendment gave the stakeholders three more years, but by 2008, the objectives were still not met. In 2010, the parties signed yet another document – commonly referred to as the 2010 Joint Declaration – that reaffirmed their commitment and added the goal of reducing the worst forms of child labor by 70 percent by 2020.

It’s evident that the Cocoa Protocol still has a long way to go. A 2011 report from the Tulane University Payson Center revealed that about 1.8 million children continue to work in cocoa agriculture in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana alone. In the Côte d’Ivoire, about five percent work for pay, and in Ghana, about 10 percent do. In the 12 years since the Cocoa Protocol was signed, only about five percent of child laborers have been exposed to its related initiatives.

In early 2012, the issue was again brought to the public eye thanks to a CNN Freedom Project documentary called Chocolate’s Child Slaves. While exploring cocoa farms in the Côte d’Ivoire,  filmmakers found that not only were child labor and slavery still very prevalent, but many of the employers they encountered hadn’t even been informed of the need to change their practices.

So What Now?

Educate yourself further.

This column just scratches the surface of the abuses and ills of the cocoa industry. To learn more, I recommend watching Mika Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano’s 2010 documentary, “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” and checking out the “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” content from the CNN Freedom Project.

Sign the petition.

Oxfam recently launched a “Women and Chocolate” petition as part of its larger “Behind the Brands” campaign, which seeks to change the way big brands do business. The petition calls on the top three chocolate manufacturers — Nestle, Mars, and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft) — to reduce gender inequality in their industry. While a separate issue from child labor, it’s still an important one.

Indulge responsibly.

Relax — no one is asking you to boycott chocolate now that you know its darker side. But you might want to consider switching your loyalties to Fair Trade brands that work directly with certified slave-free cocoa producers. And beware of Fair Trade brands that are actually owned by troublesome corporations, like Green & Blacks, owned by Mondelez, or Dagoba, owned by Hershey. My personal Fair Trade favorites are Equal ExchangeKopali Organics, and Divine Chocolate.

Images: Kirti Poddar, Peter DiCampo/Oxfam America, Clive Dara

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.