For many, Valentine's Day is a celebration of love. For others, Valentine's Day is about pain, heartache, and longing...but it doesn't have to be that way.
Valentine's Day and chocolate go hand-in-hand, but for parents of children trafficked into the cocoa fields and kept there as slaves, our hunger for chocolate is a nightmare of heartache for their stolen children.
And, on Valentine's Day, one of the main holidays when we exchange chocolate, we have some unfortunate news that this nightmare is likely to get worse. Just two days ago, on February 12, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. In a statement accompanying the release of the report, the Executive Director of UNDOC, Antonio Maria Costa, said of forced laborers "Their numbers will surely swell as the economic crisis deepens the pool of potential victims and increases demand for cheap goods and services."
The slave trade in the West African cocoa fields, which regularly produces in the neighborhood of 70% of the world's cocoa, led to public outrage after a series of media reports nearly a decade ago revealed the extent of abusive child labor and slavery in the cocoa industry. Soon after, a report by the US State Department and International Labor Organization revealed the scope of the problem: hundreds of thousands of children in abusive child labor in the cocoa fields. Twelve thousand of these children were in the cocoa fields without relatives nearby, a red flag for children who have been trafficked.
The chocolate industry ducked legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives in a landslide victory and would have required the labeling of qualifying chocolate as "slave-free", by signing a voluntary agreement in September, 2001. The document is known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, nicknamed after the Congressional sponsors of the labeling legislation.
The document's real name is long and wonky, but contains in its very title a commitment to immediate action to end these abuses; an abbreviation is "Protocol Concerning the Growing and Processing of Cocoa Beans...Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor." In the Protocol, the industry committed to ending the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa fields by July, 2005. When this deadline came and went, industry extended its deadline to July, 2008. Even more shocking, is that, on the second time around, industry had the chutzpah to promise to end slavery and the worst forms of child labor for only half the children affected.
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A new report released since last Valentine's Day shows that the cocoa industry is still stringing chocolate lovers along with its promises, making a mockery of its commitment to "Immediate Action." Last October, Tulane University's Payson Center released its much-anticipated Second Annual Report, monitoring child labor in the cocoa industry and progress on the Harkin-Engel Protocol for the US Department of Labor.
Among the many disturbing statistics of the true costs of chocolate to the children who are producing it are the heart-wrenching statistics of children who are suffering for our chocolate. Among child cocoa workers between the ages of 5-17, 43% in Ivory Coast and 74.7% in Ghana report injuries while working in cocoa production, including wounds, broken bones, and snake bites. For the chocolate we enjoy, 23% of Ghanaian cocoa workers ages 5-17 endure back pain, which could have some relationship to another statistic in the report: 69% of Ghanaian child cocoa workers carry heavy loads while they are working.
Even more heart-wrenching are the stories of ten survivors of child trafficking into the cocoa fields, who were interviewed for a pilot survey after returning to their country of origin. Only two of the children had been paid at all for their years of service, and even those had been paid next to nothing. None of the children had freedom of movement while on the farm, eight of the ten children had been beaten regularly, and one had been sexually abused. The children reported working in the cocoa fields alongside other child slaves and knew of yet others in the community.
This report shows that "Immediate Action" is long overdue. Now, we get to the part where "it doesn't have to be that way." First, the cocoa industry can step up its foot-dragging efforts to end the worst forms of child labor. Pressure has been mounting from dozens of chocolate companies, social justice organizations, faith-based groups, labor unions, citizens, consumers, investors and retailers, including those who signed on to the "Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing," drafted by a group of concerned institutions including international human rights organization Global Exchange. Second - and here is where both consumers and industry can make a difference - the industry can shift toward Fair Trade certified products. Fair Trade certified cocoa is produced under standards that prohibit forced labor and the worst forms of child labor. And Fair Trade pays farmers a price that enables them to send their children to school so that they in turn can build a better future for their families. So, when you buy chocolate, on Valentine's Day and year-round, look for the Fair Trade certified label. And ask your favorite chocolate companies to do the same.
Read the "Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing: Abolishing Unfair Labor Practices and Addressing Their Root Causes" at www.globalexchange.org/cocoa/