Complexities of Cocoa & Child Slavery

Although our mission is to educate and advocate on all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking, our awareness began with the cocoa industry in West Africa, Ivory Coast and Ghana in particular. Here, cocoa production presents complex circumstances that defy simple solutions. The positive steps of farmers who grow Fair Trade-certified beans and our purchases of Fair Trade chocolate bring us closer to economic justice, but these are incomplete consumer fixes and it is naïve for us to believe they are the solution to economic injustice.

In cocoa production, factors such as extreme poverty and agricultural inefficiencies contribute to global economic injustice and foster the conditions that perpetuate slavery.

Although 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown in West Africa and it is the biggest cash crop in Ivory Coast and Ghana, cocoa is non-native to the region. Cocoa has no place in ritual or in indigenous cuisine, yet its introduction into the local agricultural economy at the end of the 19th century drove a massive increase in world cocoa exports. By 1925 the African Gold Coast had become a leading cocoa exporter, producing at an especially stunning level since cocoa is not a plantation crop, meaning it cannot be grown and harvested using mechanized means of production on large factory farms. Because it is labor intensive, small farm holders produce between 90-95% of the world’s cocoa on plots of land approximately seven acres or less.[1]

Despite their prodigious output, there is a huge economic disparity between these mostly family-run farms and the 75 billion dollar-a-year cocoa business. For example, Ghana exported 1.2 billion dollars worth of cocoa beans in 2008, yet cocoa farmers receive only 4% of the sale price of a bar of chocolate, or about $0.0025 per bar.[2] And since production is inconsistent and their yields are low, the poorest of these family farmers make as little as $500 per year. It may be the most profitable commodity among the farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana, but with so meager an income, hiring labor or making capital investments for better fertilizer or new seedlings remains difficult.

The intensive agricultural process and extreme rural poverty creates ideal conditions for labor abuses. In her 2006 book Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, reporter Carol Off wrote about the labor workforce that moves from Mali to Ivory Coast to work on the cocoa farms. In addition to the tens of thousands who migrate annually to work in a mutually beneficial arrangement between small farmers and laborers, Off discovered another category of laborer: child slaves.

According to Off, farmers (or their hired supervisors) worked these children and teens almost to death. They were fed little, locked in their bunks at night, and were regularly beaten. The story gets darker. Apparently, many of these slaves had been trafficked by organized groups of smugglers collaborating between the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Border police along the Ivory Coast were frequently bribed to look the other way.[3] In a 2000 human rights report on Ivory Coast, the U.S. State Department estimated there were 15,000 Malian children working on Ivorian cocoa and coffee farms. Many were under 12 years old, were sold into bonded labor for the equivalent of $140 and worked 12-hour days for $135-$189 a year.[4] In a conversation with Malian diplomat Abdoulaye Macko, Off wrote:

“…Macko pulled out a heavy sack from beside his chair. He had brought photo albums…containing evidence of what he discovered on the farms. The photographs are startling. Page after page reveals groups of dusty, frightened children…there are scores of boys in the pictures, ranging in age from about ten to eighteen; dozens of photos show the shoulders and backsides of youths with their open sores and cuts…Most of the boys had been on these farms for months of even years before Macko found them. His most depressing discovery was of a boy who was nearly dead. ‘I saw something hidden under a pile of leaves. At first I couldn’t believe it, but it was a child. He was sick, his pants were covered in excrement, and they had left him out in the field to die’.”[5]

Shocking stories such as these compete with another perspective and the two contrasting sides illustrate complex cultural realities. According to an extensive study published by Tulane University in 2009, an estimated 800 thousand people in the Ivory Coast and almost 1 million in Ghana work in cocoa each year. Among the 1.8 million, more the 500,000 worked in violation of the International Labour Organization’s guidelines regarding minimum age. Among these workers, children weed, harvest and carry cocoa beans to sheds to dry. Over half of these workers reported injuries. Only 5-10% worked for pay. However, according to the report there appeared to be little evidence of slavery.[6] In other words, children did labor in the cocoa fields, they did not receive pay and they frequently suffered injuries. But their conditions might not have equaled slavery or trafficking.

The Complexities of Cocoa and Child Slavery

photo by wildcreator

In contrast to unscrupulous border stories, another border narrative emerges telling a different story. In Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa author Orla Ryan reports that in a Ivorian town on the border between Ivory Coast and Ghana, police say the children crossing the border are not being taken against their will. Many are not in school and are in search of a better life of work, food and a future. In the most impoverished nations such as Burkino Faso and Mali, food is scarce and it is easy to believe life will be better elsewhere. When parents send their children off with a stranger in hopes of a better life, they think they are doing the child a favor.[7]

How are we supposed to think about these contrasting stories? Our Western views contend that childhood and work are incompatible and these views shape our beliefs on how childhood should be experienced. The West frequently asserts child labor has a negative impact of children’s health and their wellbeing, that work denies them an education, and it continues the cycle of poverty. This perspective forms the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is important to understand the general concept that our personal views reveal cultural biases, a key fact in understanding the relationship of children and work in the developing world and our Western attitude toward child labor.[8] Whereas the West shields children from manual labor, a different attitude prevails in the Gold Coast. For example, the basis of Ghanaian culture is reciprocity, work, and a concern for family cohesion that leads families to encourage child participation. Through this, children gain maturity and learn responsibility. Work helps to socialize and holds an educative function that prepares children for adulthood.[9] And while children on cocoa farms worked long hours in often-hazardous conditions, they were not necessarily any worse off than other children in these countries.[10]

This paradigm of working childhood is problematic when work shifts in purpose from being constructive or educative to the primary focus being on earning a wage, leading to the potential exploitation of the worker. Here, political theorist Hannah Arendt would have drawn her distinction between work and labor, with work consisting of containing enduring, educative value and labor taking place away from home and family, leading to exploitation detrimental to the child and as having no lasting benefit.

Unfortunately, the distinctions between productive work and exploitive labor defy neat categorizations. In the case of children in the Ghanaian cocoa fields, the common stance of social justice advocates — that large multinational corporations exploit workers — in the cocoa fields to keep production prices low remains questionable. This oversimplification may even damage the overall cause to bring better conditions and wages to workers.[11]

Although globalization brought greater familiarity with the problems in the developing world, it has not necessarily brought a better understanding of them. For example, the problem of child labor cannot be solved by well-intentioned consumer campaigns. Boycotts of companies often have a negative direct impact on the people the boycotts are intended to help. As lowered demand for a product stifles production, workers are further driven into poverty.

International diplomatic measures are not necessarily a solution either. Given a farmer’s constraints, in many cases banning child labor could worsen the challenges faced by farmers. For example, child labor on a family or relative’s farm saves money that would have been otherwise spent hiring a laborer. With the money saved, families can afford to send that child to school.

Instead, we need to consider a more holistic approach to reducing global poverty and economic injustice. An honest assessment of the cocoa industry and children’s lives reveals varying challenges. In the developing world we have to recognize our cultural biases, the pervasive power of the economic gap between the developed and the developing world, and the need for farmers to integrate better farming techniques. These techniques include shifting from an economy that dictates monocultural growing patterns to more sustainable options. Finally, although its relative impact remains limited and we have to responsibly make sure of the accuracy of a manufacturer’s claim, our purchase of Fair Trade and ethically sourced goods contributes to a more economically just planet. For a deeper discussion of Fair Trade and its limits, click here.

At the end of the day, we are both obligated to create a more just world and need to accept the difficult reality that we are incapable of getting it completely done. In the instance of the complicated realities of cocoa in the African Gold Coast, the well-worn words of Rabbi Tarfon remain true:

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”[12]


[1] International Cocoa Organization, Annual Report, 2006/2007. p. 23.

[2] Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, London, 2011. page 6.

[3] Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. Random House Canada. 2006. Page 121.

[4] Off, page 133.

[5] Off, page 123-124.

[6] Ryan, page 49.

[7] Ryan, page 55.

[8] van den Anker, Christien, ed. The Political Economy of New Slavery. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. page 139.

[9] van den Anker, ed. 141.

[10] Off, p. 50.

[11] van den Anker, page 162.

[12] Pirke Avot, 2:21