THE CHOCOLATE YOU EAT IS PICKED BY CHILD SLAVES.
It sounds dramatic, right? To think that your favorite cocoa, milky treat has a dark past behind it strikingly changes how someone views his or her comfort food. Suddenly, chocolate isn’t as sweet as it used to be. Whoops, there goes the comfort of Dove candy-that generic quote on the wrapper isn’t so inspiring anymore, huh?
Don’t get me wrong, this is a serious issue. If you don’t know anything about this, Campaigns Director Abby Mills from the International Labor Rights Forum can give us some insight: In Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire there are an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million child laborers – ten percent of whom came to work as a result of human trafficking – and depending on the country, only 50-60% of these workers attend school.
Child labor is problematic enough as it is, but to make matters worse, this is arduous labor. Cacao trees are delicate and have fragile roots; the pods of cocoa beans are firmly attached and must be hacked off with a machete. About 57% of child laborers use this method, sometimes with the machete on a long stick to reach the high branches. 80% of the kids are carrying heavy loads while they do this.
Part of the issue simply comes from demand. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was a coalition between major chocolate-producing companies in an effort to end the problem of child exploitation. But cocoa prices have continued to rise and people still want chocolate. This means that farmers are doing whatever they can to produce the most crops at a low cost, so they are able to ensure supply for their consumers.
From a human rights perspective, this is clearly unethical. But what if adults were laboring instead of kids? What if they were not harvesting cocoa beans, but instead were sewing pairs of shoes?
This is where the situation gets even more complicated. Nike, for example, is infamous for its sweatshops. It costs $16.25 to produce a pair of Air Jordans, but $160 to buy them in stores. In the end, the people who stitch the shoes earn maybe $2, if we’re being generous.
Or we can stay in the realm of food and talk about palm oil. Palm oil is in a great many products we eat, but is mass produced on plantations that destroy local wildlife, ignore environmental standards, hand power over to corporations and – you guessed it – use children as a source of labor.
There’s just something particularly maniacal about chocolate having this evil history. “Not that sweet that holds me so close when I’m so sad!” you say to yourself reading the title of this article. Saying that those super-cool shoes that all the cool kids wear were produced by glorified slaves doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it, even though it should.
Ultimately, the movement to end child and adult slavery and extortion needs to be a unanimous effort without preference for one product over another. Chocolate should not get preferential treatment merely because most people may like it more than a “Pot O’ Noodles.”
I don’t think it would be too much to lump this issue into the umbrella term of “poverty porn.” In case you’re not familiar with the term, it “exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause,” according to aidthoughts.org.
This unilateral movement must be global. It should target issues specific to our country, ask us to change our habbits and shatter our perfect worldview of cheap goods. But to prioritize any one issue is to deny the reality of a particular child or person’s experience; it plays favorites based on the random happenstance that brought the kid there in the first place.
However, beginning this kind of movement is much easier said than done. In the meantime, we can do our part by focusing on consuming wisely. Buying “equa-trade” chocolate from the bookstore, for example, or avoiding foods from Stav Hall like some of the cereals that have palm oil are both good options. Admittedly, we can’t avoid it all. But we can do our best to act as a unified front against all human extortion.
Michael Enich ’14 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in Religion.