The dark side of chocolate

Are candy companies doing enough to end child labor?

Children work on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.

Children work on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.

PHOTO courtesy of international labor rights forum

The search for ethically sourced and manufactured products has expanded beyond diamonds, coffee and clothing to sweeter terrain: chocolate. And, after years of pressure, multinational candy companies finally are embracing the “ethical cocoa sourcing” movement—but to what degree and effect remains a matter of debate.

Labor activists say manufacturers’ commitment to the seals of approval adorning chocolate bars is dubious, and that the standards themselves are flawed.

Eighty percent of the world’s cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate, is produced by millions of growers in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, according to the nonprofit CorpWatch. And since the late 1990s, labor-rights organizations have pressured food companies to verify that their chocolate is not the product of child labor or slavery.

In 2001, eight members of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, including industry leaders Mars and Nestlé, signed the nonbinding Harkin-Engel “Cocoa” Protocol, which committed the companies to eliminating the “worst of child labor” in West Africa. Participating manufacturers were supposed to have met the international agreement’s standards by 2005, but hundreds of thousands of children continue to work on cocoa plantations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, according to last year’s Tulane University report on the cocoa industry.

In 2009, Mars and Cadbury announced a commitment to “ethical sourcing.” Mars, which makes Snickers and M&M’s and had $30 billion in global sales in 2008, has partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to ensure its entire cocoa supply—100,000 tons—will be “sustainably produced” by 2020. The New York-based R.A.’s sustainable-agriculture standards forbid child labor, except when children are part of the farm owner’s family.

But critics say R.A. standards aren’t tough enough to change an industry still rife with “blood chocolate,” and are instead a cheap way to tap into the ethical consumer market without a substantial change in business practices.

Kyle Scheihagen, founder of the online advocacy group Stop Chocolate Slavery, says that most large companies have produced only a few certified products to accommodate a small consumer demand. At the same time, Scheihagen calls the companies “cynical” for selling bad products.

Labor organizations are dissatisfied with manufacturers’ moves as well, because “ethical sourcing”—a phrase chocolate companies use to market their products—doesn’t guarantee better labor practices, as per official fair-trade certification, which occurs though the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International and its 23 member agencies.

R.A. products are required to contain only 30 percent “certified content,” meaning that the majority of the product does not reach the organization’s standards. Actual fair-trade products must contain 100 percent certified content and also guarantee a minimum price to producers. R.A. has asked its producers to scale-up their products to 100 percent certified content, but has not established a deadline.

“We didn’t want to have a 100 percent requirement and be a deterrent to large companies,” says R.A. spokeswoman Abby Ray.

“There are some fundamental problems with Alliance guidelines,” says Tim Newman, an International Labor Rights Forum spokesman. R.A. does not require unionization of workers, and several R.A.-certified cut-flower farms have quashed workers’ attempts to unionize, he says.

Newman also faults R.A. for not requiring workers to be paid a living wage; instead, R.A.-certified farms can be paid a wage comparable to surrounding farms. Newman says that R.A. standards don’t “provide a lot of incentive for a company to scale up” to better standards. Mars and Kraft did not respond to requests for comment.

Global labor-rights researcher and activist Jeff Ballinger criticizes the certification model of both R.A. and FLO, saying if they really want to stop longstanding abuses like forced child labor, they need to pressure local governments to enforce laws, not just check up on farms periodically. “They aren’t [bulletproof] practices by any means,” Ballinger says. “Pressuring governments is the way to go.”