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Valentine Chocolates: Child Labor Inside?

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Some chocolate makers have long had a reputation for enlightened leadership. But this reputation is now being strongly challenged.

In England, years ago the Quaker Rowntrees in York were anti-slavery leaders (and inspired the Willy Wonka chocolate factory), and the Quaker Cadbury Family attempted a utopian workplace in Birmingham. In the United States, the Mennonite utopian Milton Hershey created a school for his workers that survives today. However, these companies all buy cocoa from West Africa, where slave-like conditions still prevail. Systematic child labor and forced adult labor were subjects of exposes in 2001. A Protocol was signed by M&M/Mars in 2001 pledging to eliminate child labor in worldwide cocoa by July 2005. It hasn't happened yet.

The latest move from the chocolate industry is the Cocoa Verification Board, created in 2007 to validate government surveys of labor conditions in cocoa production. The Board will train and hire individual verifiers to audit data prepared by the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. This sounds like progress. The clout of one chocolate-buying brand (M&M/Mars) is behind it. I posted a favorable assessment of the initiative at csrnyc.com.

But Rodney North responded to me that this may just be a stalling action by the industry. He's an advocate, working on fair trade issues in the chocolate industry at Equal Exchange Coop. But he points to data from a US Department of Labor-sponsored study by Tulane University's Payson Center. It reports lack of progress -- after six years the new proposal is to monitor the state of child labor on only half of the cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

So, as North explains it, if a van full of children is trafficked in 2008 to work on a cocoa farm, the monitoring process could note it and this note could be certified and verified without any requirement for corrective action -- no requirement for stopping the forced labor, or for alerting consumers that the cocoa/chocolate they are buying is tainted by slave-like practices.

North asks: How much money are chocolate companies investing in tackling child labor and farmer poverty? For every pound of cocoa beans imported from Africa the chocolate industry pays about 70 cents, and ultimately makes about 10 cents in profits, he says, yet -- according to the Payson report, Appendix 4, and a recent Legal Times article -- the global cocoa/chocolate industry is spending,only about 1/100th of 1 cent on labor problems in Africa. That's about 40 cents for every cocoa farming family in Africa, which can pay for vaccinations and not much else.

The industry needs to answer these questions. If not, consumers should be enlisted in a campaign to describe the conditions under which chocolate is produced. The model is the "No Dirty Gold" campaign, which has been very effective. Equal Exchange is working with the International Labor Rights Forum, Co-op America, and other Fair Trade chocolate companies to raise awareness about lack of progress on child labor issues. They have prepared a Statement of Commitment to Ethical Cocoa Sourcing that they are seeking to get others (importers, manufacturers, retailers, faith-based organizations) to sign. Expect to hear more about this in the run-up to Valentine's Day.