Combating Slavery in Coffee and Chocolate Production

by: Jeff Nall, Toward Freedom | News Analysis

Unfortunately, the problem of child labor and forced labor is not confined to the cocoa industry. In October 2011 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) issued a report, List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, indicating that 71 countries make 130 goods that are produced with child labor or forced labor. Agricultural crops most prominently utilize child labor. Both coffee and sugarcane are among a short list of common agricultural goods produced by children.[10]

According to the ILAB report, child labor occurs in the cultivation of coffee in Colombia and Guatemala, both leading exporters of coffee to the U.S.[11] The report also notes that both child labor and forced labor have been used to cultivate coffee Ivory Coast. As John Robbins reported, the Ivory Coast is responsible for a significant amount of Robusta coffee, which is used for espresso, instant coffees, and blended into Arabica beans to make ground coffees. Coffee is sometimes grown on the same farms where cacao pods, which produce cocoa beans, are grown.[12]

Even when coffee is not produced with child labor or slave labor, it is generally cultivated with exploited labor. Most of the world’s 25 million coffee growers receive less than one-percent of what most consumers pay for their daily cappuccino and only about 6-percent of the price paid for coffee in the supermarket.[13] In the early 1980s the average per-pound cost for coffee was $1.20, but as of 2003 it was just $0.50. The falling price of coffee has directly resulted in an increase in destitution and starvation in places such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia.[14]

Elsewhere the conditions are also perilous. According to Global Exchange, workers on coffee plantations are generally paid between $2 and 3 dollars a day. Guatemalan plantation workers must pick 100 pounds of coffee in order to get the minimum wage of just under $3 a day. Workers are often forced to bring their children to ensure they meet their quota. Meanwhile small family farmers earn between $500 and $1,000 a year. Family farmers’ low earnings are typically a result of their being forced to sell their product to middlemen at sometimes half the market value. [15]

The Fair Trade Option

The good news is that each of us can do something about this problem. In addition to educating ourselves and our family and friends, we can buy and guiltlessly consume chocolate that is “Fair-Trade” certified. When foods are certified fair-trade it means workers are paid fair wages, free from abusive, exploitative labor practices, work in healthy and safe conditions, and use environmentally sustainable methods.

According to Global Exchange, fair-trade certification benefits over 800,000 farmers that are organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries around the world. However, the demand for fair-trade products is still too low for such farmers to sell their entire crop at fair-trade prices.[16] By buying fair-trade chocolate we increase the demand for products free of abusive child labor and slavery.

In addition to buying fair-trade chocolate, we can also buy fair-trade certified sugar and coffee, two crops which are also significantly tainted by child labor according to an October 2011 report, List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, released by the U.S. government.