Cocoa Industry: For Children by Children?

The cocoa industry continues to rely on child labor, but some companies are trying to change that.

A cocoa worker processes cocoa beans. 

A cocoa worker processes cocoa beans. 

From little kids to adults, chocolate evokes an essence of simplistic indulgence most cannot refuse. It is no wonder then that the average American will eat over 11 pounds of chocolate a year. However neither simplicity nor delight are terms found in criticisms of the cocoa industry. More likely one will read statements such as “it will be decades – if ever – before human rights will be respected…”— as concluded in the 2018 Cocoa Barometer’s 2018 report, produced by 15 NGOs including Oxfam and Stop the Traffik.

So who produces chocolate? Most are children who haul heavy bags of cocoa beans or harvest with machetes. Indeed, in West Africa where 70% of cocoa comes from, 2.1 million of laborers are children. The labor is often times dangerous and in a Tulane University study of the 2013-2014 growing season, 96% of child labor was labeled hazardous.

Also critical is that child labor interferes with schooling. Education is essential as it equips future workers with skills that nurture a competitive job market. Considering most of the cocoa growing areas are impoverished areas, the lack of education is a deterrent to ending systemic poverty. Further, many of the children’s parents also worked on cocoa farms and do not understand the risks of child labor or the benefits of education.

Still children are cheaper to employ for cocoa farmers than adult laborers as most cocoa farmers only make $0.78 a day. And even that meager wage is vulnerable to fluctuations in cocoa price on the global market. Goals to reduce use of child laborers by 70% by 2020 have notably failed in part because of the poor wages—in Côte d’Ivôire $0.78 is only 37% of a living wage.

Another factor in the continued use of child laborers is the absence of effective legislative action. Cocoa Barometer described the current political will as lacking “sense of urgency, or ambition to tackle the sector’s challenges.”

One area that legislation has been particularly negligent is trafficking of children. The International Labor Organization in 2002 conducted a study that concluded 12,000 child laborers were trafficked in West Africa. And while 16 years have passed since, it is still common knowledge that child laborers exist in the industry. Efforts to stop it have been ineffective: the Ivory Coast made trafficking illegal, but has yet to educate the prosecutors and police officers who can enforce the ruling.

Rather, companies are taking their own steps to confront child labor. Since 2012, Nestlé has implemented a Child Labor Monitoring Remediation System (CLMRS). CLMRS work directly in local communities and notes instances of child labor, whether self-declared or not. They respond with various forms of remediation, such as tracking school attendance.

Mondelēz International, owners of the Cadbury brand, invested $400 million in 2012 with the explicit goal to “empower at least 200,000 cocoa farmers and reach one million community members.” By 2016, Mondelēz had worked with 92,000 farmers in 861 communities.

Advertisement embodying Cocoa Life’s commitment to empowering cocoa farmers (Source: Cocoa Life).

Advertisement embodying Cocoa Life’s commitment to empowering cocoa farmers (Source: Cocoa Life).

Mondelēz’s success is because of Cocoa Life, a third-party cocoa sustainability program that is overseeing Mondelēz’s gradual shift to sustainable cocoa. Focusing on child labor, Cocoa Life emphasizes education of both children about their rights as well as educating parents about the negative effects of child labor. And at the end of 2017 116 CLMRS were monitoring the supply in Ghana out of the 447 communities it was active in.

Nestle and Mondelēz are setting examples of what many critics hope other multinational cocoa companies will replicate: reporting their successes and failures so the industry can learn from one another. Increased transparency is only one step though. Another is the hope for legislation in consuming countries that legally hold companies to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights— which is currently only a voluntary framework.

For now cocoa is still a complicated industry driven by the simplistic need to get a fix. But if consumers know the faces behind the candy bar, then awareness will encourage progress. And progress is critical to making cocoa sustainable for future generations as well as viable living for its workers.



TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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