(ANTIMEDIA) Los Angeles, CA — As the corporate media and millions of concerned parents shudder at mythical poisoned or drug-laced Halloween candy, another equally toxic ingredient has actually made it into the tons of chocolate Americans will consume this weekend: child slave labor.
If you’ve purchased any of the following brands for sugar-lusting trick-or-treaters this weekend, there is a good chance they were produced by other, less fortunate children halfway around the world: Kit Kat, Reese’s, Reese’s Pieces, Hershey’s, M&M’s, Snickers, Milky Way, Twix, Dove, Three Musketeers, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and Crunch — as well as any other chocolate brands owned by the Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars companies — are implicated in the employment of child labor, which is often forced and highly abusive.
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West Africa is home to two-thirds of the world’s cacao beans (cocoa), the main ingredient in chocolate. Cocoa is a commodity that fuels the $90 billion industry and enriches candy giants who produce dozens of different chocolate brands. The demand for cheap cocoa, however, has encouraged child labor and slavery in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, among other nations. Unfortunately, though this is old news, the public remains either woefully uninformed or knowledgeable and apathetic.
As a 2000 documentary called Slavery: A Global Investigation revealed, the conditions of chocolate child laborers are perilous. Nineteen children freed from slavery near the Ivory Coast — and their new guardian — detailed the staggering conditions of the cutthroat trade: the young children worked “from dawn until dusk every day” and were forced to sleep in small sheds. They were given a tin cup in which to urinate. The children endured a six-month “breaking in” process which included regular beatings. Sadly, they had difficulty understanding why they were not paid for their hard labor, which included carrying 100-pound bags of cocoa beans and, often, exposure to hazardous conditions.
Aly Diabata, a former child laborer, recalled his experience: “The beatings were a part of my life. I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten.”
The Daily Beast summarized parts of the now-14-year-old documentary:
“Before beatings, the boys say they were stripped naked and tied up. They were then pummeled with a variety of weapons, from fists and feet to belts and whips. In the film, some of the boys get up and imitate the beatings.Others stand to reveal hundreds of scars lining their backs and torsos—some still bloody and scabbed. They get quiet when the filmmakers ask whether any are beaten today and say some are simply ‘taken away.’”
One “slave master” explained to filmmakers his motivation for abusing the child laborers under his control: “He is paid a low price for the cocoa and thus needs to harvest as much of it as he possibly can.”
Though the slave master’s callous was callous, the documentary evoked moderate outrage in the United States — largely from the companies thriving from the forced labor. The Hershey Company reacted to these revelations with disgust, with then-Senior Vice President Robert M. Reese claiming the chocolate conglomerate had no prior knowledge of the reprehensible conditions:
“[N]o one, repeat, no one, had ever heard of this,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. “Your instinct is that Hershey should have known. But the fact is we didn’t know,” he said, echoing similar sentiments from other chocolate giants. After conducting “internal investigations,” the companies found their cocoa beans were, indeed, harvested by children.
When Congress moved to amend an agricultural bill that would require candy companies to label products made by child labor, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA), which included Mars, Nestle, and Hershey’s, waged a massive lobbying effort to kill the bill. Though the House of Representatives passed the law with a 291-115 vote, the CMA hired lobbyists Bob Dole and George Mitchell — both former senators — to work against it in the Senate. Ultimately, the two lobbyists advised the industry to draft a voluntary agreement rather than fight the bill.
In September 2001, the CMA drafted that voluntary plan of action to facilitate “the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.” Finally, they agreed to the Harkin-Engel Protocol (named for two of the lawmakers who negotiated it, Representative Eliot Engel and Senator Tom Harkin) and pledged between $1 million and $2 million to investigate child labor practices in the cocoa industry. They vowed to help reduce the practice.
By 2005, the chocolate companies had donated millions of dollars without accomplishing any major changes, so they were granted an extension until 2008 to fulfill their commitment. Stagnant progress after that first extension prompted another until 2010. At that time, a joint agreement called for chocolate producers to reduce child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast by 70%, but five years later, the industry has failed again.
A 2015 study sponsored by the Department of Labor and executed by researchers at the Payson Center for International Development of Tulane University found the percentage of children working in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast had increased 51% from 2008-09 to 2013-14.
Ghana fared better than the Ivory Coast and received praise for reducing the number of child laborers and those exposed to hazardous conditions. The report acknowledged that internal strife in these regions caused by civil war and political discord had contributed to the labor problem, but still concluded the chocolate companies had utterly failed to fulfill the pledge made with the Harkin-Engel agreement. As the report summarized, “In 2013/14, 2.26 million children were working in cocoa production, 2.12 million children were working in child labor in cocoa production and 2.03 million children were working in hazardous work in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana combined.”
Legal battles have erupted over these child labor practices.
In September 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that a group of “John Does” forced to work as child slaves on West African cocoa plantations could sue Nestle under the Alien Tort Statute. But in June of this year, eight Ninth Circuit judges dissented against that ruling, arguing the original decision was a result of “substitut[ing] sympathy for legal analysis.” Nevertheless, the ruling stood.
When the chocolate companies had still failed to reduce their dependency on child labor this year, another lawsuit was filed on September 30. Three individual complainants filed separate federal class action suits against Mars, Nestle, and Hershey’s. The suits seeks compensation for California consumers who unknowingly ate chocolate produced by child slaves. Though the complaints have the appearance of self-interest because the claim is personal ‘damage,’ they highlight the cocoa industry’s abusive practices.
“America’s largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labor, much less child slave labor, anywhere in their supply chains,” all three suits argue. Each plaintiff is seeking compensatory damages for false advertising and failure to notify customers of the child labor practices.
In spite of these legal efforts, Miki Mistrati, who made the documentary Shady Chocolate in 2014, does not believe lawsuits will effectively end the practice. “There is no doubt that a campaign about the reality in chocolate production will harm the chocolate companies,” Mistrati said. “Modern slavery with children is a part of the chocolate industry today. But I do not think that it can be the real game changer,” he added.
The filmmaker placed partial responsibility on consumers, who are often unaware and unconcerned with where and how their indulgences are produced. “Consumers have not been critical enough,” he said. “They have not asked why a chocolate bar only costs $1 when the cocoa comes from Africa. Customers have been too easy to trick with smart ads. It is over now.” However, he did not fully discount the most recent suits, saying, “This trial is a unique opportunity for the world to see how their chocolate is produced and why it is so cheap.”
Not surprisingly, the companies continue to deny fault. In response to the California lawsuits, Nestle touted a $100 million effort to improve the cocoa trade — but that initiative isn’t specific to ending child labor. In a comment to the Daily Beast, Hershey lamented the practice and said it would invest $400 million in the trade — but this investment wasn’t specific to ending child labor, either. Mars nebulously told the Daily Beast it was “committed to being part of the solution.”
Americans will spend $2.1 billion on Halloween candy this year, and a great deal of the candy companies’ profits will be from chocolate. In spite of the chocolate industry’s proactive rhetoric, it remains that their financial success is dependent on child labor — much of it forced — and they have thus far broken their promises to significantly improve their practices.
Because of these skewed priorities, children continue to suffer. A former child slave featured in Slavery: A Global Investigation imagined what he would say to the billions of people worldwide who enjoy the chocolate he produced: “They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them but saw no benefit. They are eating my flesh.”
Find information on chocolate brands free of child labor here.
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