Maybe February should be “Child Labor Month.” If you read Chris Hunt’s blog post “Where’s the Love, Hershey? On Chocolate and Labor” last year, or if you’re familiar with the atrocities that take place in cocoa fields in the Global South, then you will know that child labor is a reality in the chocolate industry today. And with Valentine’s Day just past, and close to 60 million pounds of chocolate sold for that one day, child labor issues are an urgent topic now and until they are reversed.
Last year, Chris “I don’t really care much about chocolate [gasp!], and I think Valentine’s Day is mostly a lamentable shakedown perpetuated to promote superfluous consumption” Hunt’s post stated that even if you don’t care for chocolate and/or Valentine’s Day, you probably DO care about child labor. And it turns out that while big chocolate companies (including Hershey’s) have acknowledged for years that child labor exists, and many even signed the “Protocol for the Growing and Processing of Cocoa Beans and their Derivative Products,” also known as the Cocoa Protocol which addresses child labor practices, there are still major labor abuses occurring.
A couple of weeks ago we watched Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano’s “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” a scary and eye opening documentary about child labor in Africa, focusing on the Ivory Coast, which is responsible for more than 40% of cocoa production globally. The filmmakers went in with hidden cameras and exposed the denial of government officials in the Ivory Coast. They showed us how the families were tricked into thinking that their children might have a better life (many living in terrible poverty in Mali). They filmed frightened children being smuggled across the border and they found many children working in the cocoa fields. Often these children are abused and never paid or educated. My heart ached – even though I know that child labor exists, the reality was hard for me to witness. This direct film brought clarity to the problem for me and I imagine for many others too. For a more detailed review of the film, please read Tom Philpott’s Bloody Valentine: Child Slavery in Ivory Coast’s Cocoa Fields in Mother Jones, February 14th.
After viewing the film, I was lucky to get the passionate filmmaker U. Roberto Romano on the phone. He helped me start to understand the Cocoa Protocol. In 2001, it was signed by Hershey’s, Nestle, Kraft, Cargill and many, many others as a voluntary commitment to become child labor-free by 2005. In reality it was a way to avoid government regulation and also to avoid media scrutiny. But that 2005 date came and went and a new deadline date was set for 2008 (then to only decrease child labor by 50%). In 2008 the International Labor Rights Forum published a report called “The Cocoa Protocol: Success or Failure” showing that there had been no notable change.
“The original intent of the ‘protocol’ has not been achieved, and consumers today have no more assurance than they did eight years ago that trafficked or exploited child labor was not used in the production of their chocolate.”
Romano postulated that companies such as Hershey were only ever concerned about their bottom line and they have only acted as such since they signed the Cocoa Protocol in 2001. Self-regulation isn’t the answer for these companies, which Romano feels, never researched the depth of the problem for serious answers in the first place. The Ivory Coast is difficult territory and it will be complicated to make changes happen here. Hershey is now shooting to hit the protocol targets by 2017, but if no real change has been made so far, what makes this new date any different? In order to create major change within the cocoa fields, companies like Hershey cannot continue business as usual, usual being a model where constant growth is a goal above the social impacts of production. Increased production will only lead to the need for more labor. Moving forward in such a way will never allow room to address the child trafficking and labor issues that they supposedly agreed to stop.
The Raising the Bar campaign (created by advocate groups including Global Exchange, Green America and International Labor Rights Forum) continues to put pressure on Hershey. In fact, they were planning to run an ad during the most recent Super Bowl, highlighting Hershey’s lack of transparency. But after Hershey’s announced that they are donating $10 million over the next 5 years to help educate West African farmers about trade and child labor issues, Raising the Bar pulled their ad. In that announcement, Hershey also made a commitment to fully switch their Bliss line of chocolate to independently certified cocoa by the end of 2012.
Many consumers are joining in to pressure Hershey’s to continue in the right direction. Pennsylvania eighth grader Jasper Perry-Anderson created a campaign on Change.org to encourage Hershey to source cocoa for more of their products ethically. “This is a great step that many of Hershey’s competitors have taken, but the rest of the cocoa Hershey’s buys should be responsibly sourced too.” Jasper was scheduled to deliver 15,000 signatures to Milton Hershey School Trust, who owns a large part of Hershey’s.
People everywhere are jumping in to tell Hershey’s what they think. Last year’s Hershey’s s’mores photo campaign on Facebook was hacked with people posting pictures of themselves with signs telling Hershey’s to change their practices. And even today, with no specific campaign happening, if you look at the Hershey’s Facebook wall it is sprinkled with notes calling attention to their horrible child labor practices. As consumers we can make our voices be heard by being diligent when buying fair trade chocolate – and getting active, even just on Facebook. Here’s a great example of note from a concerned chocolate lover posted on Hershey’s Facebook wall: