Chocolate’s great but tainted by child labour. Here’s what you can do about it.
Lent is a good time to consider how we celebrate Easter. In our religious and our secular lives, it’s increasingly mediated by chocolate eggs, not only on Easter Sunday but in the days before!
What do we know about the production of retail chocolate? Where does it come from? And how does it stack up against social justice Christian principles?
We know that the countries producing cocoa, much poorer than ours, are certainly not the ones consuming it. Australia is a growing market among traditional high-income countries.
What might come as a greater surprise is that hazardous child labour is widespread and growing.
A recent report from the University of Chicago, commissioned by the US Department of Labor, finds that there are more children, as young as five, working in the sector than there were in 2008-09.
In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced, an estimated 1.5 million children and teens under the age of 17 produce cocoa in dangerous conditions.
Minors use sharp tools such as machetes, carry heavy loads, burn fields and use other herbicides without protective gear.
Under pressure to produce ever-bigger yields, producers are using increasing amounts of toxic agrochemicals to control weeds and spreading into new areas cleared by deforestation.
The 300-page report details shocking injuries including wounds and cuts, back pain, fatigue, broken bones and burns.
Children told researchers they would prefer working in almost any other related industry because it would not be as exhausting and dangerous.
As Christians we should be unnerved. We are taught not just to respect other people but also support them to flourish, whatever their condition or stage of development.
The least we can do is try to prevent harm.
And, there are plenty of references in the Bible extolling honourable and enjoyable work rather than exploitative “toilsome labour under the sun”.
Back in 2001, big brands Mondelez, Nestle, Mars, Ferrero, Hershey and Lindt and the US multinational Cargill that collects much of the cocoa signed the ground-breaking Harkin Engel Protocol and the Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the protocol with cocoa industry representatives and the governments of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, undertaking to eliminate child labour and certified employmehnt practices.
Because the companies insisted they could self-regulate the protocol became a non-binding, although legal, agreement.
Twenty years on, its aims are far from realised.
The root cause of child labour is, of course, extreme poverty. COVID-19 has made things worse. Cocoa farmers currently earn less than A$2 a day. Estimates suggest if they earned just 3% more, they could afford to hire adults to do the hazardous work of handling chemicals and machetes.
The children and young people labouring in cocoa production would rather be going to school, playing soccer and dreaming of being doctors. Their parents would too.
The sector’s two-decade-old child labour monitoring and remediation systems are not responsive enough. Regulation with penalties would make child labour reforms mandatory.
Big Chocolate finally appears open to a binding agreement as the 20-year protocol reaches its expiry date this year – 2021 – a year the United Nations has co-oincidentally declared the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.
In response to survey questions prepared by charities, many of them Christian, 75% of companies in the industry backed mandatory due diligence which could include sanctions.
It’s a good time for Christians and all people of faith to get informed, pray and put prayers into action to help end child labour in the chocolate sector (and elsewhere). Actions you can take today include:
- Using your purchasing power to buy 100% certified chocolate
- Researching your favourite chocolate brand to find their child labour policies
- Writing to those brands who can and must do more including agreeing to a new binding protocol
- Being prepared to pay more for chocolate you know is ethically produced
- Signing a campaign to end child labour, and
- Making a donation to an non-government organisation working against child labour.
The Christian mission includes taking action to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Children forced into involuntary work in the chocolate sector are certainly among them.
When we work to empower people – all image-bearers of the creator God – so they are treated well, social justice becomes part of evangelism.
It’s an idea well articulated by influential theologian John Stott: “The gospel lacks visibility if we merely preach it, and lacks credibility if we who preach it are only interested in souls and have no concern about the welfare of people’s bodies, situations, and communities.”
Toni Hassan is an adjunct scholar with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. She is also a volunteer board director with Be Slavery Free and a member of the community of Holy Cross, Hackett.