Andrea Buffa is the campaigns director at Global Exchange.
In truth, I hate Halloween. I think it all started when my mother dressed me up as “Swamp Thing” when I was in elementary school. What was she thinking?
But this year my issue isn’t with the Halloween costumes—it’s with the candy. And I’m not talking about how the candy makes American kids fat and sends them into sugar frenzies. I’m talking about how the candy affects African kids—the kids who are working as forced laborers on the cocoa farms from where U.S. chocolate companies are buying their cocoa beans.
Hershey’s Kisses. Nestle’s Crunch bars. M&Ms. It’s not that I don’t like their taste. No, the problem is that it is no exaggeration to say that forced child labor went into the making of much of these chocolates. Illegal child labor is a major problem on the West African cocoa farms from which companies like Hershey, Nestle and M&M Mars buy their cocoa beans.
Even the chocolate companies admit there’s a problem. After a media exposé by Knight Ridder in 2001 , and under pressure from members of Congress, the major chocolate companies agreed to a voluntary protocol to ensure U.S. chocolate products aren’t made using illegal child labor. But the protocol expired in July 2005, and the chocolate industry failed to fulfill its own promise to monitor cocoa imports and certify that the cocoa is not made by forced child labor.
According to the International Labor Organization, the U.S. Department of State and UNICEF, tens of thousands of children work on cocoa farms in West Africa, particularly in the Ivory Coast. What does child labor on cocoa farms look like? Ask the child workers who are suing Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels-Midland for trafficking, torture, and forced labor of children who cultivate and harvest cocoa beans. The children are from Mali, and they say in the lawsuit they were trafficked from Mali to the Ivory Coast and forced to work 12- to 14-hour days with no pay, little food and sleep, and frequent beatings.
Here’s how a child cocoa laborer described his situation in the Knight Ridder exposé that brought an avalanche of negative publicity down on the chocolate companies in 2001: "He tied me behind my back with rope and beat me with a piece of wood," Siaka said, peeling back his shirt to show the scars on his left shoulder and arm. “Then he took a small gun, and said, “I’m going to kill you and dump you in a well.” Fourteen-year-old Siaka Traure was bought by a slave trader in Ivory Coast for just $28, made to work unending days on the cocoa plantations and imprisoned in a windowless mud hut.
Although I am a serious chocolate lover, at best chocolate is bittersweet when I think about the words of this boy. The only way for me to enjoy chocolate now is to buy Fair Trade chocolate, which I know was harvested on farms where the farmers are paid a fair wage, the environment is protected and child slavery is strictly prohibited. Fair trade is an existing solution to the horrific treatment that Siaka and other children like him endure everyday, and yet big chocolate companies—who could prohibit forced child labor on cocoa farms—would apparently rather profit from it.
Maybe my costume this year will be a chocolate company executive fat cat. Then again, maybe I’ll just stay at home, stick a wig on my head, and hand out Fair Trade trick-or-treat chocolates.