What The Chocolate Industry Does Not Want You To Know

Excerpts from A Bitter Little Chocolate Book (Den lille stygge sjokoladeboka) by Simen Sætre, published by Spartacus forlag, Oslo Norway 2004. Translated exclusively for the LIP magazine by Richard Daly.

Moussa DoumbiaThe pictures of Moussa Doumbia show an emaciated seventeen-year-old. He has wounds from being struck across his back, big scars. He looks at the camera, exhausted, humiliated. He is wearing worn-out jeans much too big for him. There is a bandage over a wound on one shoulder. The surface of his skin has been worn away from carrying heavy weights. This is how he looked when he came home from the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast, where much of the cocoa comes from for the chocolate we eat in Europe.

Moussa’s story began when he ran away from his home in Zantiebougou in Mali when he was sixteen. He found work in Sikasso, and there met people who were recruiting workers for a year’s employment in Ivory Coast. The pay was to be around £100 per annum – a good deal, higher than he might expect to earn in Mali. Moussa was to receive his salary after his first year of work. He seized the offer and headed across the border to a town called Korhogo in Ivory Coast. After resting for a day he was put to work, carrying heavy loads, and clearing the cocoa fields with a macheté. At night, he and his work mates were locked in. The work became heavier and heavier, and the treatment worse. Finally, Moussa tried to run away. It wasn’t long before he was discovered, brought back and beaten. One of his work-mates managed to escape and tell his fellow countrymen of the ill-treatment and imprisonment endured by the young workers on the cocoa farm. A Mali rescue effort was launched, and the majority of workers were able to return home. This is when the pictures (right) of Moussa were taken.

Three years on I met Moussa again, now a serious twenty-year-old. He recounted in detail the experiences he had endured while he worked in the cocoa fields. Sitting beside him were others who had been exploited in the same manner. In all, we interviewed eleven young men with similar stories to tell. We sat together over a couple of evenings, listening to story after story watching the night draw in and the sun slowly sink out of sight. Almost all of the young men had run away from home when they were in their teens, dreaming of escaping from poverty and trying their luck elsewhere. ‘I did it because I wanted to get myself some clothes,’ said Madou Diarra, who had left when he was fifteen.

‘Youngsters from the villages around here dream about going to Ivory Coast,’ Yaya Berthé explained. There are better job opportunities in Ivory Coast, especially in the cocoa sector. Annually this country produces about forty percent of the world’s cocoa, and a strong tradition of labour migration between the two countries is now established.

workersA significant problem arises in the workers actually getting their hands on the wage promised. Traditionally, nothing is paid out until the completion of one year’s work. When the year is up, the workers demand their wages, but cocoa prices fluctuate annually, the margins are small, and the farmers do not always have money on hand. When they try to persuade the young workers to stay for a further year, many end up locked into conflict. ‘When I had worked for a year I went and demanded my pay, but instead of getting my wages, I was beaten,’ recalled Madou Diarra.

During the last four years the media have exposed a multitude of stories from cocoa workers suffering similar fates and such press attention has led to action by human rights organisations. Western consumers boycotted particular products and politicians prepared legislation. The result was the Harkin-Engel Protocol. This voluntary agreement, signed by the world’s largest chocolate producers, involved organizations such as the International Labour Organization and Free the Slaves. One of the initiatives in the agreement was the establishment of a basic investigation charting the extent of child labour in the cocoa industry to be carried out by The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a UN organization. They revealed that roughly 625,000 children under the age of eighteen work in the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast. Almost a quarter of these children were between six and nine years of age. What researchers found most disturbing, however, was that 30% of the children had never been to school. A great number of workers were doing jobs that could be considered dangerous to their health and wellbeing – approximately 129,400 children took part in the spraying of crops with poisonous insecticides and chemical fertilizers and a large number carried out other dangerous tasks, such as clearing away the undergrowth with machetes and transporting very heavy loads.

The report paid special attention to young workers who were in work situations that had ‘special risks for children’ and could ‘put at risk their [personal] human development.’ A great many of these had travelled a long way to the Ivory Coast, most from the poor neighbouring country of Burkina Faso. The study estimated that 1,485 youngsters were unable to leave their workplaces even it they wanted to. This required the permission either of their parents – in the event that the parents could be contacted – or from a middleman who represented the family. When workers were questioned as to how they had been recruited, most explained that they had been promised a better life.

IITA’s researchers concluded that ‘The picture that emerges is of a [cocoa] sector with stagnating technology, poor crop yields, and an increasing need for unskilled workers who are locked into a spiral of poverty. Child wage-labourers are those most clearly locked into a vicious circle. Most of these children have never gone to school, they earn subsistence wages and are forced into the work for economic reasons. […] Due to the weakness of the raw material market since the end of the 1980s, the farmers have been forced to cut costs by reducing expenses and increasing the use of their own domestic labour, including that of children. This, for its part, compromises human development and the future productivity of this maturing generation of workers.’ More recently, conditions have deteriorated even further. Only a month after IITA published its report, civil war broke out in Ivory Coast.

  1. A Bitter Little Chocolate Book is so far only available in Norwegian, but an English edition will be available soon.
  2. The author, Simen Sætre, is a Norwegian journalist with a background in international relations.
  3. IITA website

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