Combating Slavery in Coffee and Chocolate Production

Dried cocoa beansMainstream media outlets and consumers have been understandably quick to take note of the benefits chocolate and coffee offer. Yet most American consumers are ignorant to the mounting evidence indicating that the laborers whom they have to thank for cultivating these products are being grossly exploited, live in spiraling poverty, and, in some cases, are modern-day slaves. Quite simply, much of the coffee and chocolate improving our health is simultaneously jeopardizing the freedom and lives of hundreds of thousands around the world including many children.

Farms in the West African nation, Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) are responsible for more than 40-percent of the world’s cocoa beans. Here cacao trees produce flowers that develop into pods filled with cocoa beans. Workers harvest the pods, and cut them open, usually with machetes, to collect the white coated cocoa beans within. The beans are then dried in the sun, bagged, then sold to an intermediary. The intermediary then sells the cocoa beans to national exporters who wash, pack, sell, and then ship them to chocolate manufacturers.[1]

Beginning in October of 2000,[2] multiple investigative reports by Knight Ridder Newspapers,[3] the BBC, and independent journalists have found that both child laborers and enslaved child laborers are routinely employed to work cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. Boys and girls, usually between the ages of 12 and 16 but some as young as 7 and 9, are smuggled from neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and sold to cocoa bean plantation owners. The children are often lured into slavery under the pretenses of paid work. Upon being sold to plantation owners, the children are forced to engage in grueling manual labor, carrying extremely heavy bags, working with machetes and pesticides. They often work long hours, as many as 80 a week, but they are rarely, if ever, paid. Those failing to work fast enough are beaten with branches and bicycle chains while those attempting escape have been bound with rope and beaten so severely scars remain.[4] One boy who managed to escape his enslavement, 15-year-old Zanga Traore said, “If you work slow or refuse to work, they will beat you.” Those who comply nevertheless suffer. A 2005 survey concluded that 92-percent of child workers engaged in work such as carrying heavy loads that caused open wounds.[5]

In 2010 the BBC broadcasted an investigative video report, “Chocolate: The Bitter Truth,” in which reporter, Paul Kenyon, documented continued evidence of human trafficking and child slave labor in the chocolate supply line.[6] Kenyon tells the story of Fatao, a 12-year-old boy, who was taken from Burkina Faso and sold into Ghana’s cocoa labor force by his uncle. The boy’s mother said she left her son in the care of his uncle while she was working. Upon being reunited with her as a result of the expose, Fatao said, “I don’t even find food as sweet as the joy I feel upon seeing my mother.”

In the 2010 documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate, Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano uncover ample evidence that the trafficking of children to work on cocoa plantations is unquestionably widespread. They meet a man in Mali who has documented his interception of literally hundreds of children who were being smuggled from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to the Ivory Coast. They also speak to a village chief who tells of more than 100 children being abducted by traffickers. According to a child, Mariam Marico, aged 12, whose smuggling was thwarted, her trafficker had lured her with promises of opportunities to make money. Such promises are almost always empty. Traffickers often prey upon children seeking to earn income for their desperate families. One boy who managed to escape his enslavement, 16-year-old Yaya Konate, says that traffickers trick children into going with them.

Mistrati and Romano’s film goes still further, speaking to and secretly recording those directly involved in the trafficking of children. One man says that plantation owners pay him and others to take children across the border to work. Later a plantation owner causally explains that his brother can get children from Burkina Faso to work cocoa plantations. Despite the chocolate industry’s efforts to downplay the issue of child labor and slavery in cocoa production, Mistrati and Romano also film a number of young children, ages 10 and up, working plantations where SAF-CACAO, one of the largest sellers of cocoa beans, purchases their product. Many of the children do not speak the local language and are from Burkina Faso. They are engaged in heavy manual labor, using machetes, and carrying large loads.

Participants in the chocolate industry can no longer honestly deny or plead ignorance to the prevalence of child labor and trafficked, slave child labor in its supply line. A U.S. government-backed study by Tulane University concluded, in March 2011, that more than 1.8 million children in West Africa continue to be involved in cultivating cocoa.[7] A November 2011 investigative piece by the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley reports that it is commonplace to see “children carrying machetes or pesticide equipment,” and joylessly hard at work collecting and cutting open the cocoa pods that contain cocoa seeds. “There was no laughter or play. On their legs were scars from machete injuries. There was no first aid kit around or any protective clothing.”[8] Despite the chocolate industries assorted non-binding proclamations, the U.S. backed Tulane study concludes that fewer than 4-percent of the people in the cocoa producing regions of the Ivory Coast have been aided since the industry claimed it would take action.[9]

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.

Morality requires American consumers to purchase fair-trade products whenever possible. Whether one is a egalitarian, believing that people have an obligation to help others, or a libertarian, believing that people are only obligated to not coerce, harm or unjustifiably restrain innocent others, it seems clear that consumers have an obligation to ensure that the people who produce the goods they consume are both not enslaved and basically compensated. Just as a morally decent person understands that it is wrong to purchase and get cheap and quick goods from a provider who is known to regularly sell stolen goods, so, too, is it wrong to purchase cheap chocolate, coffee, sugar, and other goods that are cultivated through stolen, forced, or exploited labor.

It is also important to point out that buying fair-trade products is not the same as donating to help others. When it comes to the moral uses of money people often think of donating funds to the needy or those who are suffering. While donating to the needy is an important component of a moral life, fewer donations would be necessary if people were justly rewarded for the often very hard work they do. Ideally, no one should purchase fair-trade products with the idea that they are donating to improve the lives of coffee and cocoa growers. Buying fair-trade products is not “donating” to a cause, it is merely doing the decent thing: paying people a reasonable sum for the work that they are doing for you.

Buyers should know, however, that not all fair-trade labels are created equally. At the end of 2011 a rift emerged between fair-trade organizations. The main American fair-trade organization, Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA), announced that it would lower its standards allowing corporate coffee and chocolate companies product grown on estates and plantations to be eligible for certification. In the past only cooperatives could receive the seal.[17] In response, Fairtrade International (FLO), an organization comprised of 25 groups responsible for setting international Fairtrade standards and supporting Fairtrade producers, objected to these proposed changes. FLO states that the decision to allow coffee grown by corporate giants conflicts with salient principles of the fair-trade movement. “One of the strengths of the small producer organization is the promotion of independent, democratic decision-making, something that is difficult to promote among a transient workforce. Opening the Fairtrade system to plantations with large coffee volumes could also threaten small producer organizations that cannot operate on the same scale and all three of our producer networks recognize and voice the need for additional research.” As a result of the disagreement the two organizations have parted ways.

This means that individual American consumers have a few choices to make even if they have already chosen to buy fair-trade products. We can choose to buy products certified by Fair-Trade USA. These produces feature a certification mark showing a black and white person standing in front of a globe, holding two baskets. Conversely, we can choose to buy products certified with FLO’s fair-trade certification mark, the most recognizable throughout the world. This symbol features “a person with a raised arm, representing the optimism of producers,” along with a blue and green background, symbolizing the sky and growth.[18] The image looks something like a variation of the Chinese yin and yang symbol.

A strong case can be made in support of favoring FLO’s certification mark. Clearly corporate power exerts a deleterious, unfair influence in our political institutions and in civil society. This fosters plutocratic and oligarchic society wherein decisions are made by the rich and the few. Despite this criticism it seems profoundly clear that if one had to choose, buying products certified by Fair Trade USA over those that are not certified at all would bring about a great deal more happiness, and, as a result, would be the moral choice. The good news is that the FLO seal of approval is increasingly prevalent in stores such as Whole Foods.

Offering of fair-trade products varies from store-to-store. For some, ordering online may well be the best option. Organizations such as Global Exchange and Equal Exchange are leaders in the fair-trade movement, and they offer a wide assortment of products.

As a Floridian I have found that Publix grocery stores offer a growing assortment of fair-trade certified coffee including products from Newman’s Own, Seattle’s Best, and the Publix’s own Greenwise brand. Though there are a variety of powerful reasons to avoid the store, Wal-Mart,[19] it is worth noting, carries a variety of fair-trade certified coffee from Seattle’s Best, Newman’s Own, and Sam’s Choice coffee. Other than Whole Foods, however, few of my grocery stores carry fair-trade chocolate or cocoa.

For the contemporary American consumer our purchasing practices are moral proclamations. To the extent that we refuse to contemplate the people whose labor produces the foods we put in our bodies and the objects we use in our daily lives, we conveniently deny our moral obligation to consider the well being of not only those nearest to us, but also workers living in the shadows of production who also have the basic rights to living a decent life.

Jeff Nall holds a PhD in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality from Florida Atlantic University. He teaches philosophy and gender studies. For more of his work or to contact him go to

Photo via Flickr under a Creative Commons license from Nestlé.



[2] In October 2000, the BBC televised Brian Woods and Kate Blewett’s investigative documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation.

[3] Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee. 24 June 2001. “A Taste of Slavery.” Knight Ridder Newspapers

[4] Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee. 24 June 2001. “A Taste of Slavery.” Knight Ridder Newspapers

[5] Marjie Sackett. “Forced Child Labor and Cocoa Production in West Africa.” Topical Research Digest: Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery. P.85

[6] BBC. 24 March 2010. “Tracing the bitter truth of chocolate and child labour”

[7] BBC. 28 Nov. 2011 . Nestle ‘to act over child labour in cocoa industry’

[8] Humphrey Hawksley. 10 Nov. 2011. “Ivory Coast cocoa farms child labour: Little change.” BBC

[9] Humphrey Hawksley. 10 Nov. 2011. “Ivory Coast cocoa farms child labour: Little change.” BBC

[10] List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. P. xi

[11] P.17 Thanks to Elizabeth Grossman for pointing this out in her work, “Why Your Morning Coffee Could Be the Product of Child Labor,” 5 Nov. 2011.

[12] John Robbins. 19 April 2010. “Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate?”

[13]David Hoyt and John McMillan. 19 February 2004. “The Global Coffee Trade.” Stanford Graduate School of Business.

[14]David Hoyt and John McMillan. 19 February 2004. “The Global Coffee Trade.” Stanford Graduate School of Business.



[17] Tom Philpott. 29 Nov 2011. “Should Fair Trade Certify Giants Like Nestle and Folgers?” Mother Jones.

[18] FLO. “About the Mark.”

[19] See Stacy Mitchell’s article, “Eaters, bewar: Walmart is taking over our food system” (30 Dec 2011) on