(MintPress)—This year, Americans are predicted to spend over $17 billion buying gifts for their loved ones on Valentine’s Day. The average expected amount that Americans will spend per person on Valentine’s Day is up 8.5 percent from last year, to just over $126, according to a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey, marking the largest […]
(MintPress)—This year, Americans are predicted to spend over $17 billion buying gifts for their loved ones on Valentine’s Day. The average expected amount that Americans will spend per person on Valentine’s Day is up 8.5 percent from last year, to just over $126, according to a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey, marking the largest amount in spending on the holiday since NRF began the survey 10 years ago.
Pam Goodfellow, Consumer Insights Director at BIGinsight, the group which conducted the survey for the NRF commented, “This year we could very well see some consumers searching high and low and stopping at nothing to make sure their loved ones receive the perfect gift.”
Flowers, jewelry and a night out on the town are some of the most often gifts given to celebrate the occasion, but another popular gift item – chocolate – has been garnering growing attention from human rights organizations concerned about the practice of child-labor and even slavery in the chocolate-producing industry lately. About half of all celebrants will be buying candy, according to the NRF’s survey.
Connection between chocolate and child labor
Chocolate, a product of the cacao bean, (which is commonly referred to as cocoa) grows primarily in the tropical climates of West Africa and Latin America.Two West African countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, supply 75 percent of the world’s cocoa market, according to the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI).
While kids in the U.S. and Europe enjoy the sweet treat – which is consumed at a rate of 3 million tons per year globally – the reality that many children in developing countries experience in connection to it is quite different. Swiss non-profit ICI works to achieve understanding among individual cocoa growing communities to ensure no child is exploited and ultimately, to end abusive labour practices, its website details, and also acts as a clearinghouse for information on child and forced labour issues.
The group has conducted extensive research on the topic of child labor and trafficking in West Africa and documented that children are “found working and exposed to hazards through a combination of economic needs, ignorance on the part of parents, lack of schooling facilities and in some cases outright exploitation.”
In addition to research and advocacy, the ICI works with governments, industries and international organizations offering advice in support of the global effort to end child labour in the agricultural sector. The ICI has said that in the Ivory Coast, up to 89 percent of children it interviewed for a 2008 study reported undertaking some work in cocoa production.
According to the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, recent estimates reveal over 132 million boys and girls, aged 5 to14 years old, work in agriculture around the world. They are part of an estimated 246 million child laborers globally. Few countries and sectors totally escape this terrible blight in the 21st century, the group points out.
The problem has been well-documented in the cocoa industry, as a number of new stories, reports and documentary films on the topic have emerged.
The cocoa grown in African and Latin American countries is harvested and sold to a variety of chocolate companies including The Hershey Co., Mars Inc. and Nestle – common household names in America.
It is difficult to obtain information on exactly how many children are working in the cocoa industry, and while a number of organizations and journalists have exposed the widespread use of child labor, and in some cases slavery, particularly on West African cocoa farms, the industry has become increasingly secretive in response, according to the Food Empowerment Project. (F.E.P)
There have also been cases of retaliation against reporters seeking information on this topic, the group pointed out, referencing an incident in 2004 where French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer was kidnapped in the Ivory Coast, while allegedly examining links between the country’s regime and the cocoa trade. Just last month reports surfaced about his remains being potentially found in the Ivory Coast. In 2010 three journalists from a daily newspaper were detained by government authorities in the Ivory Coast after publishing an article about government corruption related to the cocoa industry.
In West Africa, cocoa is a commodity crop grown primarily for export. As the chocolate industry has grown over the years, so has the demand for cheap cocoa. Today, cocoa farmers barely make a living selling the beans and often resort to the use of child labor in order to keep their prices competitive.
Chocolate and global poverty
The children of West Africa are surrounded by intense poverty, according to statistics compiled by the Centre for Poverty analysis in Ghana. The report, entitled “Investigating Chronic Poverty in West Africa”, also notes high infant mortality rates and some of the worst poverty in the world persisting in the rural areas. Most children there begin working at a young age to help support their family.
Some children end up on the cocoa farms because they need work and they are told the pay is good. Other children are “sold” by their own relatives to traffickers or to the farm owners, and it has also been documented that traffickers often abduct the young boys from small villages in neighboring African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. When the US Department of Labor (US DOL) released its “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” in September of 2009, cocoa from Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria were listed as goods produced by child labor and cocoa from Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria were also listed for forced labor.
On the same day, US DOL also recommended that cocoa from Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria be included on a list of goods believed to be produced by forced or indentured child labor that are prohibited from federal government procurement as a result of Executive Order 13126 which was signed in 1999.
Governmental efforts fail to curb concerns
Immediately following the release of these reports, the International Cocoa Verification Board (ICVB), a group charged with seeing that child labor is eliminated from the industry, issued a press release calling the reports “counterproductive” and stated that they “may jeopardize the very efforts that are underway to address this critically important issue, according to information from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF).
The group also concluded in its 2010 report “Broken Hearts: A Review of Industry Efforts to Eliminate Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry” that legislation discussed in the US aimed at curbing the use of child labor in the chocolate industry has largely failed. In 2001 the House of Representatives passed legislation requiring chocolate companies to label their chocolate child-labor free, but lawmakers scrapped the bill before it got to the Senate, after they were convinced by industry representatives that a voluntary agreement to work towards ending child labor would suffice.
The Harkin-Engel Protocol, named after Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel, was signed in September 2001 by major chocolate companies and requiring them to “develop and implement credible, mutually-acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standards of public certification, consistent with applicable federal law, that cocoa beans and their derivative products have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor” by July 1, 2005.
The ILRF reports that “chocolate companies have been able to control initiatives meant to eliminate forced, child and trafficked labor in West Africa’s cocoa industry under the auspices of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. As a result, the problem of child labor continues nine years after the industry committed to end these abuses.”
The sweet taste of change
The group also states that after nine years, and despite the Harkin-Engel Protocol placing the ICVB in charge of working to combat the problem, the efforts have yet to result in a single child being removed from exploitative labor. The group warns, “As US consumers spend billions of dollars on chocolate this Valentine’s Day, the major chocolate companies continue to break the hearts of cocoa farmers, children and concerned consumers globally.”Karlee Sapoznik, President, CEO and co-founder of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery in Canada, quoted Amadou, one of an estimated 200,000 young laborers in the Ivory Coast as saying, “When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.”Sapoznik points out that,
“In spite of the lack of consensus on what is the solution, all parties agree that more needs to be done on every front. We need more education, more international pressure, better law enforcement, more preventative measures and more shelters and rehabilitation centres to make those currently enslaved or vulnerable to be enslaved in the cocoa industry slave proof. We also need more bad press against the chocolate companies and individual farmers who continue to benefit from the dark side of chocolate we literally bite into on a daily basis. History shows us that popular outcry and pressure from below will be essential to this process.”
On it’s website, the F.E.P recommends that people buying chocolate read labels to see if it has been ethically sourced, noting that chocolate grown in Latin America appears to be free of much of the wide-spread use of child labor that plagues West African sourced cocoa. The group’s website also features a page containing lists of chocolate it would recommend, as well as those it would not. Earlier this year, Green America, Global Exchange and the International Labor Rights Forum published a report, Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company.in which The Hershey Co. was given an “F” for failure to eliminate its use of forced, child, and trafficked labor in its chocolate products.
The groups said, “While some of Hershey’s closest competitors, including Mars and Nestlé, have committed to begin sourcing cocoa that is independently certified to comply with labor rights standards, Hershey, the largest and most iconic chocolate company in the US – maker of Hershey’s Bars, Reeses’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Hershey’s Kisses – still lags behind.”The F.E.P. concluded, “This issue is a very difficult one to fully access as the most serious abuses are taking place across the world. However, that does not mean our responsibility is diminished since chocolate is indeed a luxury (though some might feel differently) and not a necessity like fruits and vegetables. Taking all of this into consideration and looking at the research that is available, at this time F.E.P. recommends that people do not buy any chocolate that is sourced from the Ivory Coast or Ghana.”