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The Bitter Truth of Sweet Chocolates

At the start of the century, a ship named MV Etirino was at sea with at least 43 children aboard. This ship was suspected of carrying over children to work as slave labourers in West African cocoa plantations. The conditions were so bad that they talked about debt bondage, human trafficking and slavery. The epicentre of this operation was in Ivory Coast. This news made international headlines.

People associate chocolates with happiness and celebrations. News like this made them shun big brand chocolates and opt for locally made ones. Companies like Cadbury, Nestle and Mars among many others were now forced to show reports of their cocoa beans sourcing. Unfortunately, they couldn’t track which farms this cocoa came from. Brands like Nestle often buy cocoa at commodity exchanges where Ivorian cocoa is mixed with other varieties. Even, Cadbury who managed to prove that 90% of its chocolates came from Ghana (Ever noticed how Cadbury always calls it Ghana Cocoa, not simply cocoa in its advertisement?) had to face the wrath of the public. So Cadbury spokesman Richard Frost stood up, hoping to amass help on an international scale.

In the United States, legislation was passed stating that FDA should mandate chocolate manufacturers to prove that their supply chain does not incorporate slave labourers at any point and hence they’ll be allowed to label their chocolate slave-labour free.

But such labelling can hamper a brands image significantly. Chocolate is supposed to invoke good memories and not get you thinking about slave labours. So the chocolate makers protested and asked time till 2005 to mitigate the child labour risks completely. Some efforts were undertaken but most in vain. Human Rights groups even targeted these brands saying they spent more trying to get customers to trust their chocolates again rather in getting to the depth of this heinous business. The US Department of Labor engaged the Payson Center at Tulane University to look into the implementation of their plans, and the Center’s balanced 2010 report reveals some startling information. It found (at p.57) that partners implementing the plans on the ground in Côte d’Ivoire had received only $1.2 million between 2001 and 2009 – a mere pittance when compared to the over $2.7 billion in Ivoirian cocoa exported in 2009 alone.

Today a lot of us don’t know about this business, even though news articles resurfaced in 2010, 2015. This was due to the continuous focus these brands took in re-emphasizing the source of these chocolates. Cadbury’s website maintains that its chocolate is slave labour free. Is it really? We honestly don’t know.

And this is no old tale. The issue of child labourers in Ivory Coast pertains to this day. We can’t be sure of the exact numbers. They range from mere thousands to 8 million. There have been reports of government allegedly killing journalists who reported such things. But even thousand is a lot; not even a single child should be living in such conditions.

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