Modern-Day Slavery: The Main Ingredient in your Chocolate Bar

Last week, I watched Lincoln at the cinema, which focuses on the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and brilliantly examines the American civil war and the abolition of slavery in the US. As someone who has very limited knowledge about American history, I was astonished to learn how much Abraham Lincoln had to struggle in his campaign to end slavery, and how difficult he found it to convince others that it was the right thing to do.

It made me realise how far our global society has come; today, slavery is universally condemned. Individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce are celebrated and revered; they are sources of national pride.

However, the practice of slavery still very much exists today, in perhaps more complex circumstances. Up until the 19th century, slavery was very much part of society, slaves were considered to be less than human; just property, and this was taken as fact and not questioned. Slavery existed because it was socially acceptable. In the late 1700s when Parliament rejected the abolition bill, abolitionist started a boycott of slave-grown sugar, as it was widely known to have been produced with the use of slaves. As Britain’s largest import, sugar was vital in keeping the Slave Trade running. This movement made a significant contribution to increasing the awareness about the cruelty of slavery in the British Empire.

Today, the practice of slavery is something that is hidden from mainstream society. Despite being prohibited under international law, slavery exists all over the world; there are approximately 21 million slaves in the world today. Many of the everyday products we buy in the UK have been produced with the use of slave labour. The fact the slavery is something that is hidden, means that it is often very hard to know which products involve its use; the ever-growing power of global corporations means that information regarding the production processes of products are becoming more difficult to access by consumers. The fact that most products have been produced through a supply chain, which often involves their components travelling between continents, also means that they are often very hard to track.

One of these products, which features strongly in many of our lives, is chocolate. 60% of the world’s chocolate is exported from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Cocoa production provides approximately 80% of the Ivory Coast’s export earnings, and represents about a third of their economic activity in total. While the global price of cocoa is gradually rising, this has not been reflected in the experience of farmers in West Africa, who are paid very little by the private traders who, in practice, run cocoa marketing. However, due to the Ivory Coast’s reputation as the world’s provider of cocoa, many children and young people from nearby Burkina Faso and Mali travel there looking for work. Many children are also trafficked from these countries to work on cocoa farms; either forcibly taken, or lured with the promise of employment. It has been estimated that at least 70% of cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast use child labour, with UNICEF estimating that there are around half a million children working on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. Investigative reports by the BBC and CNN have found children being forced to work between 80 and 100 hours a week for no payment, with no access to education, or even healthcare.

Despite these statistics, the major corporations that sell chocolate continue to work with farms in West Africa. By major corporations, I am including Nestle and Cadbury, the two biggest chocolate manufacturers in this country. This chocolate, which is sold in supermarkets, newsagents, and cinemas all over the country, is exclusively produced from cocoa beans farmed in West Africa. Notably, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was recently made Fair Trade; leaving us to consequently assume that the dozens of other Cadbury’s products are unfairly traded, most probably involving slave labour. In recognition of the growing awareness of the use of slavery in chocolate production, last year, Ferrero and Mars pledged to eradicate slavery from all its products by 2020. This is a positive sign, particularly as chocolate manufacturers signed, and failed to comply with, a voluntary agreement titled the Harkin Engel Protocol in 2002 pledging to commit to a series of steps to eliminate the problem of child slavery. Hopefully, more companies will follow suit, but, until there is a stronger form of accountability on the corporations who allow slavery to continue in this industry, and more public awareness and public will concerning these issues, there will be no incentives for companies to change their behaviour significantly.