The Big Seven Candy Makers Rely on Contraband Cocoa Beans Harvested by Enslaved Children
As you give trick-or-treaters candy this weekend, let’s not forget the devil inside the candy wrapper. Chocolate business profits come in good part from child slaves in Africa. The United States has the power to end this evil, just not the political will to act.
Seven big food makers – Hershey, Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut and Olam – make most of the profits from enslaved children’s labor.
The Biden administration has the power to seize every one of the cocoa beans that will soon begin arriving in Philadelphia and a few other American ports from the 2021 harvest in West Africa. Products of child labor and slaves have been contraband since at least 1930, which means Customs and Border Protection can — and should — seize the beans. Yet no president from Hoover to Trump enforced the law.
President Barack Obama in 2016 signed a law strengthening the power to seize products of forced labor. President Bill Clinton signed a 2000 law to help end child enslavement by boosting the 1930 contraband law. Still, a law not enforced is no law at all.
Child enslavement and the de facto economic enslavement of adult cocoa plantation workers continue because the Big Seven chocolate companies use their economic power to drive the prices of cocoa beans to such ridiculously low levels that plantation owners can’t pay decent wages.
Earlier this year, DCReport told about the “relationships between the candy makers and the cocoa farms in West Africa, which provide 70% of the world’s cocoa supply. Half is grown in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Most American chocolate is made from Ivory Coast cocoa beans.”
In Europe, however, the first moves to seriously address child slavery in the chocolate business began in this, the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. Next year a global conference on child labor is scheduled in South Africa.
Hershey, Mars, Mondela and the four other big chocolate companies say they are horrified that children become de facto slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa.
The chocolate makers also claim that they cannot track most of the beans they buy back to specific farms. The reason is they aren’t required to, not that they cannot do so.
What the Big Seven do instead is exercise their market power to drive down farmgate prices.That forces plantation owners into becoming de facto enslavers of the desperately poor.
The $3 billion Americans spend this year just on Halloween chocolate treats shows how deep the economic interest of see-no-evil candy companies and those of us who buy from them help ensure continued misery for as many as 1.5 million enslaved children.
Now, at long last, the European Union is asking hard questions. In contrast, the American Congress ignores those children and many others forced to work in the coffee bean fields of Central and South America and Africa.
In formal legal filings before the European Commission, the Big Seven assert that they merely buy the cocoa beans and are not responsible for, nor can they stop, the abuses of cheap labor, including children dragooned into dangerous work wielding machetes on the plantations. That’s self-serving nonsense.
The European inquiry has been pushed for years by a handful of anti-slavery activists. The hero of this anti-slavery movement is Fernando Morales de la Cruz, who has waged a long and lonely struggle to get the world to pay attention to 21st Century slavery.
Morales-de la Cruz says that the American government “has been looking the other way to the fact that most cocoa and also most chocolate imported by the U.S. is produced with child labor.”
He also notes how American foreign aid, a tiny bit of the federal budget, does nothing to reduce enslavement.
Morales-de la Cruz says promises by the American Department of Labor to eliminate child labor in the cocoa fields are meaningless. “It’s impossible to eliminate child labor and eradicate poverty while corporations are buying cocoa for less than one-fourth of its real value,” he said.
“The only way to fix this is to multiply the price paid to cocoa growers by four and then to make all chocolate industry corporations act within the rule of law.”
His focus is not just on cocoa beans but also on coffee, as you can read at the website Café for Change. He also organized cartoonists to illustrate the problems of enslaved children and adults trapped in economic slavery, hoping to engage hearts the way chocolate engages tastebuds.
Quadruple Farmgate Prices
“The chocolate companies must pay three to four times current prices” to create the economic conditions required to eliminate enslavement, Morales-de la Cruz said. The candy companies know this, as shown by studies they commissioned (which tend to absolve them) and reports in trade publications like Confectionary News.
Eight formerly enslaved boys who worked in the cocoa fields sued the Chocolate Seven companies under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
Their lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lawyer Terrence Collingsworth of nonprofit International Rights Advocates represents them.
The companies assert that the formerly enslaved boys have no legal standing – no right — to sue. The companies also say there is no relief the companies can provide, so the case should be tossed. Those defenses arise because the law is structured to favor the haves over the have nots.
While that civil case grinds on, existing law can put a stop to 21st Century cocoa field slavery if enforced.
What Can Be Done
Can anything be done to make the chocolate companies pay fair and reasonable prices instead of using their economic power to grind down poor Africans and create slave conditions?
That’s easy – enforce existing law.
Just the threat by President Joe Biden to seize one cocoa bean ship would surely get the attention of the Big Seven chocolate companies.
If that fails to bring immediate change, the Biden administration need only seize and dump the cargo of one ship combined with a vow to continue holding each new chocolate bean ship arriving on the Delaware River.
Persuading the British, French and other European governments to do the same would be optimal.
Biden could even send the Navy to capture cocoa bean ships on the high seas as the British Navy did in the 19th Century, interdicting more than 1,000 slave ships and freeing an estimated 150,000 enslaved Africans.
A Role for Congress
Congress should open hearings into trafficking in contraband. Imagine what Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), the former law professor who has shamed corporate executives with smart questions, could do leading such a committee.
Child enslavement and the de facto economic enslavement of adult cocoa plantation workers continue because the Big Seven chocolate companies use their economic power to drive the prices of cocoa beans to ridiculously low levels. Plantation owners can’t pay decent wages even if they want to do so.
Plantation owners get only about a quarter of what is needed to operate the plantations without de facto slavery. Paying workers more so adults would replace children would have only a minor effect on chocolate bar prices. That’s because cocoa beans represent only a tiny part of the cost of candy bars.
In the processed foods industry, the food itself typically is the cheapest or nearly cheapest ingredient. In the year 2000, for example, a $3.39 box of breakfast cereal contained grain that cost just nine cents while the box cost a dime. Advertising costs 11 times as much as the grain. The same is true of chocolate, tea and coffee.
That matters because quadrupling farmgate prices for cocoa beans means that the price of $1 chocolate bars would only go up by a few dimes.
The next step would be for the candy companies and their agents to document that the plantation owners pay their economic slaves higher wages. That would ensure that plantation owners don’t just pocket the money. That requires a strict enforcement regime, including audits of payments to workers, open access for inspectors and criminal prosecution with prison for violators. Recalcitrant plantation owners might need to see their peers land seized to stop their vile conduct.
The Ivory Coast already has solid laws on the books, just not effective enforcement. And that won’t change so long as the Big Seven candy makers use their economic power to pay unreasonable farmgate prices.
American Customs and Border Protection reports many contraband seizures at the border and ports, but its focus is on drugs like cocaine and fentanyl, along with cash, not on the equally illegal products of child labor and slave labor. What a strange set of moral values our government has, taking severe action against drugs and associated cash and turning a blind eye to profiteering off slavery.
The Biden White House does nothing because hardly anyone in America knows that their purchases of chocolate treats enable child enslavement. Without pressure from the public, few things change for the better in America as our history with slavery, voting rights, union rights and laws against domestic child labor show.
Child slavery in chocolate production is an evil we can eradicate. Doing so requires that consumers who buy chocolate tell Congress and the White House that they want America to take every lawful step it can to end child slavery.
What could be a better Halloween treat for enslaved African children than turning their misery into decent lives?