As you give trick-or-treaters candy this weekend let's not forget the devil inside the candy wrapper. The chocolate business profits from child slaves in Africa and the United States has the power to put an end to this evil, just not the political will to act.
Seven big food makers — Hershey, Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, and Olam – make most of the profits off the labor of enslaved children.
The Biden administration is required by law to seize every one of the cocoa beans that will soon began arriving in Philadelphia and a few other American ports from the 2021 harvest in West Africa. Products of child labor and slaves have been contraband since at least 1930, which means Customs and Border Protection can — and should — seize the beans. Yet no president from Hoover to Trump has enforced the law.
President Barack Obama in 2016 signed a new law strengthening the power to seize products of forced labor. President Bill Clinton signed a 2000 law that was supposed to help end child enslavement by strengthening the 1930 contraband law. Still, a law not enforced is no law at all.
Child enslavement, and the de facto economic enslavement of adult cocoa plantation workers, continue because the Big Seven chocolate companies use their economic power to drive the prices of cocoa beans to such ridiculously low levels that plantation owners can't pay decent wages.
Earlier this year DCReport told about the "relationships between the candy makers and the cocoa farms in West Africa, which provide 70% of the world's cocoa supply. Half is grown in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Most American chocolate is made from Ivory Coast cocoa beans."
In Europe, however, the first moves to seriously address child slavery in the chocolate business began in this, the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. Next year a global conference on child labor is scheduled in South Africa.
Hershey, Mars, Mondelez and the four other big chocolate companies say they are horrified that children become de facto slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa.
The chocolate makers also claim that they cannot track most of the beans they buy back to specific farms. The reason is they aren't required to, not that they cannot do so.
What the Big Seven do instead is exercise their market power to drive down farmgate prices. That forces plantation owners into becoming de facto enslavers of the desperately poor.
The $3 billion Americans spend this year just on Halloween chocolate treats shows how deep the economic interest of see-no-evil candy companies and those of us who buy from them help ensure continued misery for as many as 1.5 million enslaved children.
Now, at long last, the European Union is asking hard questions while the American Congress ignores those children as well as many others forced to work in the coffee bean fields of Central and South America as well as Africa.
In formal legal filings before the European Commission, the Big Seven assert that they merely buy the cocoa beans and are not responsible for, nor can they stop, the abuses of cheap labor, including children dragooned into dangerous work wielding machetes on the plantations. That's self-serving nonsense.
The European inquiry has been pushed for years by a handful of antislavery activists. The hero of this antislavery movement is Fernando Morales de la Cruz who has waged a long and lonely struggle to get the world to pay attention to 21st Century slavery.
De la Cruz says that the American government "has been looking the other way to the fact that most cocoa and also most chocolate imported by the U.S. are produced with child labor."
He also notes how American foreign aid, a tiny bit of the federal budget, does nothing to reduce enslavement.
De la Cruz says the American Department of Labor promises to eliminate child labor in the cocoa fields are meaningless because "it's impossible to eliminate child labor and eradicate poverty while corporations are buying cocoa for less than one-fourth of its real value. The only way to fix this is to multiply the price paid to cocoa growers by four and then to make all chocolate industry corporations act within the rule of law."
His focus is not just on cocoa beans, but also on coffee as you can read at the website Café for Change. He also organized cartoonists to illustrate the problems of enslaved children and of adults trapped in economic slavery, hoping to reach hearts the way chocolate reaches tastebuds.
Quadruple Farmgate Prices
"The chocolate companies must pay three to four times current prices" to create the economic conditions required to eliminate enslavement, de la Cruz said. The candy companies know this as shown by studies they commissioned (and which tend to absolve them) as well as reports in trade publications like Confectionary News.
Eight formerly enslaved boys who worked in the cocoa fields are suing the Chocolate Seven companies under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
Their lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Their lawyer is Terrence Collingsworth of nonprofit International Rights Advocates.
The companies assert that the formerly enslaved boys have no legal standing – that is, no right — to sue. The companies also say there is no relief the companies can provide so the case should be tossed. Those defense arise because the law is structured to favor the haves over the have nots.
While that civil case grinds on, existing law if enforced can put a stop to 21st Century cocoa field slavery.
What Can Be Done
Can anything be done to make the chocolate companies pay fair and reasonable prices instead of using their economic power to grind down poor Africans and create slave conditions?
That's easy – enforce existing law.
Just the threat by President Biden to seize one cocoa bean ship would surely get the attention of the Big Seven chocolate companies.
If that fails to wring immediate change the Biden administration need only seize and dump the cargo of one ship combined with a vow to continue seizing each new chocolate bean ship arriving on the Delaware River.
Persuading the British, French, and other European governments to do the same would be optimal.
Biden could even send the Navy to capture cocoa bean ships on the high seas as the British Navy did in the 19th Century, interdicting more than a thousand slave ships and freeing an estimated150,000 enslaved Africans.
A Role for Congress
Congress should open hearings into trafficking in contraband. Imagine what Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), the former law professor who has shamed corporate executives with smart questions, could do leading such a committee.
Child enslavement, and the de facto economic enslavement of adult cocoa plantation workers, continue because the Big Seven chocolate companies use their economic power to drive the prices of cocoa beans to such ridiculously low levels that plantation owners can't pay decent wages even if they want to do so.
While plantation owners get paid for their beans only about a quarter of what is needed to operate the plantations without de facto slavery, paying them more would have only a minor affect on chocolate bar prices because cocoa beans are a minor part of the cost of candy bars.
In the processed foods industry, the food itself typically is the cheapest or nearly cheapest ingredient. In the year 2000, for example, a $3.39 box of breakfast cereal contained grain that cost just nine cents while the box cost a dime. Advertising costs 11 times as much as the grain. The same is basically true of chocolate, tea, and coffee.
That matters because quadrupling farmgate prices for cocoa beans means that the price of $1 chocolate bars would only go up by a few dimes.
The next step after threats of seizure or actual seizures would be for the candy companies and their agents to document that they pay their economic slaves higher wages so plantation owners don't just pocket the money. That requires a strict regime of enforcement, including audits of payments to workers, open access for inspectors, and criminal prosecution with prison for violators. Recalcitrant plantation owners might need to see their peers' land seized to stop their vile conduct.
The Ivory Coast already has some solid laws on the books, just no serious enforcement. And that won't change so long as the Big Seven candy makers use their economic power to pay unreasonably farmgate prices.
American Customs and Border Protection reports many seizures of contraband at the border and ports, but its focus is on drugs like cocaine and fentanyl, along with cash, not on the equally illegal products of child labor and slave labor. What a strange set of moral values our government has, taking serious action against drugs and associated cash and turning a blind eye to profiteering off slavery.
The Biden White House does nothing because hardly anyone in America knows that their purchases of chocolate treats enable child enslavement. Without pressure from the public few things change for the better in America as our history with slavery, voting rights, union rights, and indeed laws against domestic child labor show.
This is an evil we can eradicate. Doing so requires the consumers who buy chocolate to tell Congress and the White House that they want America to take every lawful step it can to end child slavery.
What could be a better Halloween treat for enslaved African children than turning their misery into decent lives?