Cocoa, Coffee, and Child Slave Labor
by Christine Vitiello
Many Americans couldn't imagine functioning without their daily cup of coffee to satisfy their morning crave. Others can't live without the delicious essence of chocolate. What many people don't realize is that their indulgence and satisfaction is relied upon by tiny laboring hands of mistreated minors in foreign countries. Yes, I mean child slave labor. Americans spend $16 billion on 3.3 billion pounds of chocolate every year (Ebadolahi). Coffee is the second largest commodity (after oil) in international commerce with a value of $10 billion per year. Over 8 billion pounds of coffee is grown in 50 countries, providing jobs to more than 20 million people. People don't recognize that this is a result of social injustice to human beings around the world.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 250 million working children, 120 million of whom work full time (no school). Especially in agricultural communities, children must work in order to help their families survive. Many children work for commercial farms and plantations that produce commodities exclusively for export. These children make about 7-12 % of the work force on the plantations. Children are able to produce a variety of products including vanilla, tobacco, tea, sugar cane, rubber, palm oil, jasmine, fruit and vegetables, cotton, coconuts, coffee, and cocoa (Plight of Coffee's Children).
Forty-three percent of our cocoa is harvested on Ivory Coast in West Africa (Ebadolahi). The 600,000 small farms, which produce cocoa, account for almost half of the nation's entire economy. West African cocoa beans are purchased and processed by chocolate manufacturers around the world. Among the popular brands in the United States, Ben and Jerry's, Hershey's, Mars Confectionary, Nestle, and Kraft all use cocoa from Ivory Coast. Overproduction and deregulation of the market has forced cocoa prices to plunge from $4.89 per pound in 1977, to today's price of 51 cents (Ebadolahi). Falling prices have placed pressure on cocoa farmers to take desperate measures. Farmers, unable to turn a profit in recent years, have refused to pay their laborers, and instead kept them working without pay through beatings, intimidation and threats of magical spells. Child slaves in Ivory Coast are normally between nine and sixteen years old. These slave are illiterate, hungry and desperate for money.
In 1998, a U.S. State Department background report on the country acknowledged the existence of child slavery in Ivory Coast in West Africa. Later in 2001, Save the Children Canada reported the 15,000 children between nine and twelve years old, had been tricked or sold into slavery, many for just 30 cents. Recently this summer, a Birmingham civil rights law firm filed a federal class-action suit against chocolate-maker Nestle and several of its suppliers on behalf of former child slaves. The suit's three teenage "John Doe" plaintiffs allege they escaped the Ivory Coast cocoa farms after they were forced to work 12-14 hours a day, six days a week, without pay, given little food, beaten often and guarded at all times. They say some who were caught attempting to escape had their feet cut open or were force to drink urine (Smith). In 2001, the chocolate manufacturing industry agreed to develop a certification system to "identify and eliminate any usage of the worst forms of child labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans." This was agreed because the US House of Representatives voted to require US-sold chocolate to be labeled "slave free." This system was supposed to be in place by July 2001, but now the industry says the best it can do is certify half of the world's cocoa farms by mid-2008 (Smith). In 2001, Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed a system of mandatory chocolate and cocoa labeling to draw consumer attention to slave-manufactured products. This past October, the Harkin-Engel Protocol established an independent monitoring system for the farms and voluntary industry-wide standards for anti-slavery labeling on American chocolate and cocoa products (Ebadolahi).
Americans, spending over $3 on the average drink at Starbucks, would be appalled to know the conditions under which their coffee originated. In the Central American coffee producing countries, recent statistics show that 52% of Latin American inhabitants are under the age of 18. For this reason, the prevalence of children of coffee farms is significant. According to the US Department of Labor, more children work in agriculture around the world than any other economic sector. Children working in this field face many safety and health risks. Coffee picking is exhausting work. Long hours, hot temperatures, overexposure to the sun and snakebites are a constant threat to the well being of the children. They are also exposed to dangerous chemical fertilizers and pesticides that have been banned in the US (Plight of Coffee's Children). Child slaves have no rights, and are frequently subjected to brutal treatment and sub-human living conditions. Bonded labor or debt labor is a form of forced labor in which children enter into servitude as a result of some initial financial transaction. This most frequently occurs when no alternative sources of credit is available, then the parents are forced to pledge their children's labor as payment or collateral on a debt. Parents assume their children will be able to repay the debt out of future earnings, but a combination of low wages and high interest rates many times make repayment impossible (Plight of Coffee's Children). In addition to compensation issues, the living conditions often include substandard hygienic conditions, unsafe drinking water, unclean sanitary facilities, and medical facilities. The medical facilities are often inadequate to treat the illnesses and injuries suffered by children. Also, many of the children do not attend school.
Coffee is a labor-intensive product to tend to. Coffee experts in producing countries estimate that the amount of labor required to produce a pound of coffee is 2.2 hours (Plight of Coffee's Children). Even at commodity price levels of $1, there is intense pressure to keep costs low. With continued pressure, labor costs can be pushed down even further than they are now.
In many countries, government policies simply ignore the plight of children. While laws may exist, the lack of surveillance, enforcement, and intervention on the part of governments allows child labor to continue. When violators are caught and prosecuted, penalties are too small to affect the employer's practices. Child slave labor continues also because of social acceptance in certain areas. In specific cultures, working children are a part of an accepted societal norm. Labor is viewed as beneficial to the child, the family, and the society in general. Indonesia's "Panscasila" ideology states that a child's foremost duty is to help their parent. Also, society in general contributes to child slave labor through omission, indifference, a lack of awareness, or the acceptance of the child labor as a natural and customary way of life. An example of this indifference lies in the economies of countries where the multi-million dollar coffee export industry plays a key role, and the lack of serious data and analysis on worker and child slave labor issues.
Unfortunately the child slave labor issue in agriculture is not likely to disappear any time soon. Children are going to work in the coffee and cocoa industries as long as poverty exists in their communities. Although, Fair Trade cocoa poses as an alternative to cocoa produced by the hands of forced and disused children. Fair Trade cocoa offers farmers and opportunity to make a real living. The Fair Trade Certified production criteria guarantee a minimum price and insure that no child or forced labor is used. To treat the child slave labor issue, we must look at it as one component of a broader social and economic agenda to improve industry policy and practice. Better wages, health care, better access to school, and decent housing is essential for children and families on cocoa and coffee estates. The ultimate goal here is for children in cocoa and coffee producing communities to live as healthily and carefree as the children of the US.