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Child Labor in Cocoa Production

child harvesting cocoaFor many American children—and their parents—chocolate is a delightful treat that adds to the joy of special occasions such as Valentine’s Day. But for children in West Africa, there will be nothing special about that day. It will simply be another desolate day of harvesting cocoa under inexcusable conditions. For that reason, the American Federation of Teachers is organizing a Valentine’s Day of Action to stop the importation of child-harvested cocoa beans or chocolate made from them.

More than half of the world’s supply of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is cultivated in the two West African nations of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Their cocoa production depends on the labor of more than 3.6 million children. The International Cocoa Verification Board estimates that hundreds of thousands of those children are involved in cocoa-specific Worst Forms of Child Labor. Children must climb trees with machetes to cut down cocoa pods; they handle and apply dangerous pesticides; they burn brush; and they carry back-breaking loads. Living conditions in the growing area are appalling. An estimated 84.8 percent of cocoa-producing villages do not have a health center, and 50.9 percent of households lack direct access to drinking water.

Compounding the problem for these children is that their hazardous work in the cocoa trees keeps them from attending school. Nearly a quarter of the working children in Côte d’Ivoire have never been to school. Among those who have attended school, 7.6 percent stop going after they go to work on the cocoa farms. Overall, just 14.8 percent of the child cocoa laborers are literate.

On Valentine’s Day this year, most of the chocolate consumed in the United States will have been made from cocoa harvested in West Africa. This is true despite action in September 2009 to include cocoa beans from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire on the U.S. Labor Department’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.” Under the Farm Bill of 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Consultative Group formulates guidelines aimed at reducing the likelihood that goods imported into the United States are produced with child or force labor. But the Agriculture Department has done nothing to act on the exploitation of child labor in chocolate production. For the children of West Africa, the meaning of this Valentine’s Day is not a heart-shaped message of love and affection—it is just more hazardous labor under heart-breaking conditions.

As U.S. chocolate manufacturers have largely outsourced both their production plants and their supply chains, their control over where the cocoa beans originate has almost disappeared. That leaves cocoa industry child labor restraint mainly to multinational agricultural conglomerates that have little accountability to consumers or governments. Companies such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland supply most of the cocoa beans used in chocolate consumed in the United States. These companies are aware of the West African child labor problem, yet they have done little to eliminate such practices from the cocoa trade.

It is time for the U.S. Agriculture Department to act. Cocoa beans from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire already are on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced by child labor. Now the Agriculture Department should expedite the formulation of guidelines that will reduce child labor.

As part of the Valentine’s Day of Action, the AFT is urging the Department of Agriculture to ensure that U.S. imports of cocoa and chocolate are not produced with child labor.

  • Send a Valentine to Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to ensure that the candy we share with loved ones next Valentine’s Day is not spoiled by the bitterness of child labor.
  • Read the letter from AFT president Randi Weingarten to Sec. Vilsack asking him to address the plight of millions of children in West Africa involved in the production of cocoa.