Ivory Coast, located on the southern coast of West Africa, is by far the world’s largest supplier of cocoa beans, providing 43 percent of the world’s supply. According to an investigative report by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), hundreds of thousands of children are being purchased from their parents for a pittance, or in some cases outright stolen, and then shipped to Ivory Coast, where they are enslaved on cocoa farms. These children typically come from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Destitute parents in these poverty-stricken lands sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast and then send some of their earnings home. But that’s not what happens. These children, usually 11-to-16-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, receive no education, are barely fed, are beaten regularly, and are often viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.
In addition to the hazards of using machetes, children are also exposed to agricultural chemicals on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Tropical regions such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast consistently deal with prolific insect populations and choose to spray the pods with large amounts of industrial chemicals. In Ghana, children as young as 10 spray the pods with these toxins without wearing protective clothing.
The farm owners using child labor usually provide the children with the cheapest food available, such as corn paste and bananas. In some cases, the children sleep on wooden planks in small windowless buildings with no access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms.
On cocoa farms, 10% of child laborers in Ghana and 40% in the Ivory Coast do not attend school, which violates the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Child Labour Standards. Depriving these children of an education has many short-term and long-term effects. Without an education, the children of the cocoa farms have little hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty.
To date, relatively little progress has been made to reduce or eliminate child labor and slavery in the cocoa industry of Western Africa. At the very least, the industry has agreed to work to eliminate what the ILO calls “the worst forms of child labor.” These are defined as practices “likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children” and include the use of “hazardous tools” and any work that “interferes with schooling.” Approximately1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst forms of child labor on cocoa farms.
Consumers play an essential role in diminishing the food industry’s injustices. Child slavery on cocoa farms is a difficult issue to fully address because the most serious abuses take place across the world; however, that does not mean our responsibility is reduced, since chocolate is a luxury and not a necessity like fruits and vegetables.