Sorry to scare you, but on Halloween much of the chocolate Americans will hand out to trick-or-treaters will be tainted by the labor of enslaved children.
Hershey's, Nestlé, and the other big chocolate companies know this. They promised nearly a decade ago to set up a system to certify that no producers in their supply chains use child labor. They gave themselves a July 2005 deadline for that, which came and went without meaningful action. A second voluntary deadline sailed by as well in 2008. There's a new deadline for voluntary action at the end of this year. Don't hold your breath.
Few Americans had heard of this problem before reporters Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee exposed the scandalous conditions under which most U.S. chocolate is made, in the summer of 2001.
In one of their articles, a slave described his 13-hour workdays on the 494-acre plantation as brutal, filled with harsh physical labor, punctuated by beatings, and ending with a night of fitful sleep on a wooden plank in a locked room with other slaves.
"The beatings were a part of my life," said the boy who was sold into slavery at not yet 12 years old. "Anytime they loaded you with bags and you fell while you were carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again."
The reports shocked some members of Congress into action. That fall, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) prepared bills to require U.S. chocolate companies--by force of law--to certify their products as slave-free. Engel's bill passed the House, but before Harkin's bill could pass the Senate, the chocolate industry had announced a voluntary four-year plan to clean up its own supply chains, without legislation.
Meanwhile evidence that child slavery still bedevils the chocolate industry isn't hard to find. For example, in late September, a research team from Tulane University (specifically charged by Congress with oversight of the voluntary supply-chain efforts) reported that "the industry is still far from achieving its target…by the end of 2010…and the majority of children exposed to the worst forms of child labor remain unreached."
The just-released documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate, by filmmakers Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano takes a less detached tone, going undercover and exposing child slavery in the cocoa supply chain from the inside.
And if that's not enough, the State Department's own 2010 Trafficking in Persons report lists several West African countries where children are traded and taken to work cocoa plantations.
All the while, the biggest chocolate companies cavil that because they don't own the cocoa plantations outright, cleaning up their supply chains is too hard. But some of them aren't even trying. The biggest cocoa company in the country, Hershey's--even after nine years to get started--has no certification system in place whatsoever to ensure that its cocoa isn't tainted by labor rights abuses.
Here are three things you can do this Halloween to ensure that your chocolate isn't tainted by the exploitation of children overseas.
- Look for chocolate from companies that do certify their supply chains, via labels such the Fair Trade label and the IMO Fair for Life label. My non-profit organization, Green America, offers a scorecard that explains these labels in detail, and ranks chocolate companies.
- Contact conventional chocolate companies like Hershey's--call them, write to them, write on their Facebook pages--and tell them you expect them to prove their supply chains aren't tainted by child labor and slave labor.
- Contact your representatives in Congress. If after a decade the chocolate companies can't monitor their own supply chains, we need to go back to the drawing board, and demand by law that slave-produced chocolate doesn't belong on the shelves of stores in the USA.
The people who produce the raw materials for our chocolate treats deserve fair wages and safe working conditions. African children shouldn't have to suffer unspeakable horrors so that our children can have a happy Halloween.