Trick or Treat? The True Cost of Chocolate

child labor

Daniel Rosenthal/laif/Redux Image source


While my son is getting ready to head out tonight to harvest Halloween candy, excited by the chance to lug a pillowcase full of chocolate bars around the neighborhood,I’ve been thinking about the children who harvest the cocoa that goes into the chocolate in his bag.

Because while he finds an evening of hauling candy a treat, I know that for the millions of kids his age working in the cocoa industry it’s anything but fun.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 2 million children are performing hazardous work in the cocoa industry in the West African countries of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which account for about 58% of the world’s cocoa production.

The cocoa industry in these countries relies heavily on work performed by children, some as young as 5 years old, including WFCL (shorthand for the “worst forms of child labor” as defined by international law).

The work is dangerous, and it’s especially hard on children’s bodies.

“Working on cocoa farms can be hazardous, particularly for children, whose physical, mental, and psychological capacities are still developing. Children working in cocoa may work long hours, carry heavy loads, and use dangerous tools. Children may also be involved in spraying cocoa trees with pesticides or burning fields to clear them.”

A Tulane University report, commissioned as part of the accountability framework for the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol that was meant to end abuses in the industry, lays out the issue:

“Fifteen years ago, the West African cocoa sector came under increased scrutiny after media reports revealed incidences of child trafficking and other labor abuses in cocoa farming. On September 19, 2001, representatives of the international cocoa/chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Signing this agreement as witnesses were U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, the ILO, and representatives of civil society. Based on ILO Convention 182, the Protocol’s principal goal was “to eliminate the worst forms of child labor (WCFL) in the cocoa sectors of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.”

Remarkably, child labor in the cocoa industry has continued to proliferate despite the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001. In 2008, DOL estimated that 1.75 million children were working in West African cocoa production. By 2013-14, that number had risen to 2.26 million children, including 2.03 million children found to be performing hazardous work in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Tulane University study of the sector released in July 2015 found the following:

  • Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producer, experienced large growth in cocoa production from 2008-09 to 2013-14.
  • Total output rose by over half a million tons, or over 40%.
  • The population of children 5-17 years living in agricultural households in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing regions grew by about 180,000, or 5%.
  • The numbers of children working in cocoa production, doing child labor in cocoa production, and doing hazardous work in cocoa production grew by 59%, 48%, and 46% respectively.

What’s driving the growth?

In short, it’s us and our demand for cheap chocolate. The problem, of course, is that it’s not easy to harvest cocoa. It’s heavy, dangerous, delicate work. Fields must be cleared, planted, and tended. When the cocoa pods are ready, they must be harvested by hand, split open, and the seeds removed for drying. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive work.

That kind of labor should come at a significant cost. But as with so many commodities, the prices are kept low by squeezing labor out of workers who are largely invisible to consumers through a complicated supply chain structure. Consumer-facing companies are driven by the competing demands of delivering rock bottom prices and sky-high profits. Those with massive buying power – like Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlė – are able to bid down the prices of commodities like cocoa with their suppliers, who make up for low prices by paying less – or sometimes nothing at all – for the work.

Supply chain dynamics are of growing concern in the anti-trafficking movement. The seriousness of the global supply chain’s impact on workers was highlighted in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, and 2010 legislation in California, the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, now requires certain companies to report their specific actions to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.

We see the effect of this kind of price pressure on wages here in the United States. Retail cleaners in Minnesota, for example, have been squeezed by the low contracts bid by stores which result in wages as low as $4 per hour. Workers organized by CTUL have set a November 10 strike deadline for contracted cleaners. Farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields, facing the same structural barrier to fair earnings, used pressure on major retailers to increase the per/pound rate for tomatoes by $.01, resulting in a substantial step toward a fair wage.

But the kids harvesting cocoa don’t have that option. Sometimes sold for the equivalent of $30, sometimes kidnapped, they don’t have the power to stage a boycott.

That’s why earlier this fall a lawsuit alleging the use of the worst forms of child labor in the production of Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Mars chocolate products was filed by consumers in California. It’s not the first time that the companies have faced litigation over their labor practices, but this class action is the latest effort to pressure the chocolate industry to fix a problem it has known about for more than a decade.

Forced labor yields approximately $50 billion in profits annually according to estimates by the International Labour Organization. Included are profits derived from what are considered the worst forms of child labor, or WFCL, such as that used in the cocoa industry.

There are bright spots: While the number of children in West Africa’s cocoa production increased in the past five years, Ghana actually managed to reduce, albeit slightly, its numbers during that period.

So what will I do this Halloween? I’m not entirely sure. But I know I’ll start with a conversation.  To end this problem of child labor in the cocoa industry, more consumers need to know about the true cost of the chocolate they are buying.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy

More Resources to Learn about Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry:

The Dark Side of Chocolate – 2010 documentary by Miki Mistrati & U. Roberto Romano. In 2012, they produced a follow-up film called Shady Chocolate. The Shady Chocolate website includes an interactive cacao map and information how to write letters to the industry via the International Cacao Initiative.

Slave Free Chocolate has a list of ethical chocolate companiesFood Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List is also available as a free smartphone app.

Mayor’s Vatican Meeting Brings Minnesota’s Vision for Combatting Human Trafficking to World Stage

Puppet RGBWhen Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges meets with the Vatican, she has the opportunity to highlight a position that Minnesota law reflects and to which our community has committed: the prostitution of another person is human trafficking.

When it comes to defining human trafficking, Minnesota law looks at the behavior of the trafficker: did that person “receive, recruit, entice, harbor, provide, or obtain by any means an individual to aid in the prostitution of an individual”? If yes, it’s trafficking. Minnesota does not define human trafficking by the conduct of the victim. This unique approach helps to hold traffickers accountable regardless of the “consent” of the victim.

Minnesota’s anti-trafficking policy reflects the understanding that targeting buyers and traffickers is good public policy. Because make no mistake, trafficking operates in a marketplace driven by demand, as research published last year by Dr. Lauren Martin and Dr. Alexandra Pierce, put into disturbing focus. The Minnesota approach avoids the trap inherent in attempts to rationalize a distinction between prostitution and trafficking, a position which rests on a tempting but ultimately untrue assumption of equal bargaining power between the woman and the person who buys her for the hour.

NPR reporter Sylvia Poggioli’s report is a somewhat disturbing example of how the issue plays out. In the report, Poggioli talks about a new Rome ordinance that creates permitted zones for prostitution in a previously unregulated city. The report identifies first the paradox that while “aiding and abetting prostitution” is illegal (possibly under anti-trafficking laws), exchange of sex for money is legal and that the city’s response to the growing nuisance of open prostitution is to create tolerance zones and fine sex buyers who purchase outside one of the zones.

Poggioli goes on: “The great majority of prostitutes in Italy are foreigners. Many are undocumented women from Nigeria, victims of human traffickers and women from European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.” It’s no surprise that Poggioli can’t distinguish between prostitution and trafficking, because they are part and parcel of the same exploitation. This inadvertent insight hits the nail on the head: prostitution isn’t about the sex and it’s not about work; it’s about power, degradation, and violence.

The Vatican meeting comes at a moment when the debate over legalization of prostitution is in full swing. Amnesty International is poised to adopt a policy on sex work that recommends legalization of sex buying and selling.

To some extent the recommendation reflects the legitimate concern that criminalization of prostituted persons, especially in LGBTI communities worldwide, is too often used as an excuse to target people on account of sexual orientation, political opinion, ethnicity or other factors. While legalization may take away one avenue for this persecution, it avoids tackling the root causes of why people are on the street in the first place.

Arguments for legalization of sex buying avoid an even bigger elephant in the room: that of men’s responsibility for commercial sexual exploitation. Poggioli falls for the tired attempt to blame men’s sex buying on Italian women’s “liberation.” Amnesty International essentially blames criminalization of sex buying for the human rights violations experienced by people sold for sex. Both leave intact and unexamined demand for ready access to paid sex when, where, and how men want it.

Minnesota, meanwhile, is on a different path, one that is consistent with our understanding of the fundamentally violent and exploitative nature of prostitution that is reflected in our existing laws. Given our roots, perhaps it’s no surprise that Minnesota is considering an approach which has come to be known as the Nordic Model. Led by Minnesota representative John Lesch, a bill to repeal the penalties for selling sex while retaining penalties against sex buyers and traffickers strikes the right balance.

We know that a community commitment to what the U.S. State Department calls the 3Ps of protecting victims, prosecution those responsible for the trafficking, and preventing trafficking in the first place is fundamental to fighting human trafficking.

One of the keys to the success of Minnesota’s approach to sexually exploited youth has been the creation of the No Wrong Door model, which resulted from a multi-disciplinary stakeholder engagement process which reinforced a collective understanding of what trafficking is and evidence-based practices to help victims rebuild their lives. The process was included in the 2011 Safe Harbor legislation to ensure that Minnesota did not simply “decriminalize” trafficked youth but made a good faith effort to actually meet their needs so they did not need to return to selling sex for lack of other options while retaining criminal accountability for those who buy and sex other people for sex.

Minnesota’s anti-trafficking policy is on the right track and with this visit to the Vatican, it’s set to take the world stage.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, Director of Advocacy, The Advocates for Human Rights

Déjà Vu All Over Again

ThisWoman crying morning I opened my e-mail to a string of comments relating to an ad in City Pages, our local Voice Media Group publication.


“Sickening and repulsive.”


Of course, I had to see for myself what was prompting this reaction.

The item in question was an ad for local strip club Déjà Vu. Featuring a woman dressed, so to speak, in a mock-Native American outfit complete with a feather headdress, it hawks its upcoming “Titsgiving” celebration. (For those of you playing at home, last year’s ad featured a buckskin-clad woman). With the offer of a free giant hot dog buffet, the ad leaves little doubt as to what patrons can enjoy the night before Thanksgiving.

The discussion was kicked off by Dr. Sandi Pierce, who asked the question, “and we wonder why Native women experience the highest rates of rape and sexual exploitation?” It’s no surprise that Sandi, who prepared the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center’s 2009 report on sexual exploitation of Native women and girls, Shattered Hearts: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls in Minnesota, asked this question. Her research, along with that of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education’s 2011 report, Garden of Truth, shines a sobering light on the gross human rights abuses suffered by Native women and girls here in our community.

This victimization doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a tragic outcome of what Garden of Truth identifies as “longstanding efforts by the United States government to extinguish and/or assimilate Native people.” In what was to become the political entity today known as “Minnesota,” the federal government used a combination of forced migration and forced assimilation to decimate the Dakota, Anishinabe, and Ho Chunk peoples and allow the United States to justify laying claim to the land and resources of the region.

The efforts to extinguish and assimilate are not ancient history. Boarding schools, which forced more than 100,000 Native children from their homes in an attempt to assimilate them into white culture, were rife with sexual abuse. Begun in the 1870s and continuing into the middle of the 20th century, boarding school attendance was mandatory. The federal relocation era, lasting from the 1940s to the 1970s, attempted to assimilate Indian people by encouraging the move to urban areas. “Stranded in a culturally unfamiliar environment, often without extended family and friends, Native people were vulnerable to exploitation which included prostitution,” write the authors of Garden of Truth.

The Déjà Vu ad obviously raises myriad troubling questions about the intersection of racism and sexism. Following last week’s protest against the Washington football team’s appearance in Minneapolis, which drew thousands, will we see outrage against Déjà Vu? Given what activist Cordelia Anderson describes as a “toxic sexual environment” that bombards us with hyper-sexualized images and normalizes pornography, it seems unlikely.

The ad also raises questions about how Minneapolis, which has long taken a hands-off approach to the “sexually oriented businesses” clustered downtown, ought to regulate this industry. And about how City Pages and weeklies cut ties with the lucrative online classifieds section, the leading online destination for prostitution ads, but continues to fill ad space from these businesses.

The good news: You will no longer find the ad online. By mid-afternoon, City Pages had deleted the ad from its online edition, responding to calls from outraged activists.  A lesson learned, just a few calls make a difference. If you see something, say something. But the event is going as planned at Déjà Vu. Pick up the phone and give them a call.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of Advocacy.

Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Amane and Sinke 2

During the week of September 22, the International Oromo Youth Association’s (IOYA) president, vice president, and I were in Geneva—invited there to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. IOYA worked diligently to raise funds from the Oromo diaspora to support our trip. The week was a good illustration of many of the ways diaspora groups can use the United Nations to advocate for human rights in their countries of origin and ancestry–the focus of Chapter 9 of our diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

The treaty-body review process is cyclical, like the Universal Periodic Review. It typically starts with the government’s report on its compliance with the treaty. You can read the Ethiopian Government’s report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child here. Next, civil society groups like The Advocates for Human Rights and IOYA can submit their own alternative reports (also called “parallel” or “shadow” reports), responding to the government’s report and identifying issues that need further attention. Read our report to the Committee here.

Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child
Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

The next step in the process is for the Committee to publish a “list of issues” to guide the rest of the review. The Committee on the Rights of the Child invites some civil society organizations to meet with Committee members in person for a confidential briefing before it finalizes the list of issues. We met with the Committee on September 26 and had a productive dialogue about their issues of concern and ours. But because the closed-door session is confidential, I won’t go into details of what we discussed.

Two weeks later, the Committee published its list of issues for its upcoming review of Ethiopia. The Committee included many—but not all—of the issues we raised in our report. Based on the list of issues, we know the Committee is concerned about issues such as “discrimination and stigma faced by girls, children with disabilities, and children of ethnic minorities”; sexual abuse of children, including children with disabilities; FGM; support for children with disabilities, including children who live and/or work in the streets; “relocation of a significant number of indigenous families, belonging, inter alia, to the Anuak, Nuer or Oromo, under the ‘villagization’ programme, . . . to areas unsuitable for agricultural use, where they lack access to education and basic necessities”; child domestic workers; abuse and violence against children; and sexual violence perpetrated by teachers against students.

The next step in the process is for the Ethiopian Government to submit a written response to the list of issues. The Committee requested a response by March 15, 2015, but oftentimes the responses come much later.

Now that we know the issues the Committee is concerned about, we have the opportunity to submit a new report if we have any additional information that might be relevant. And after the Ethiopian Government submits its written response, we can submit our own alternative report to highlight any inaccuracies or omissions in the government’s report.

Next, the Ethiopian Government will send a delegation to Geneva for an “examination” by the Committee. The examination will take place during the Committee’s session running from May 18 to June 5, 2015. The examination isn’t limited to the topics covered in the list of issues, so it’s possible the Committee will voice its concern then about the government’s violent crackdown on student protests. Then, after the session, the Committee will publish its Concluding Observations and Recommendations for the Ethiopian Government. You can read the Concluding Observations from Ethiopia’s last review, in 2006, at this link.

To learn more about the UN treaty body review process, read pages 224-233 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA Meets with UN Special Procedures Staff

IOYA President Amane Badhasso meeting with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders
IOYA President Amane Badhasso meets with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders

We didn’t travel all that way just for one meeting. Rather, we decided to make the most of our time by following up on a letter we sent to some of the UN Special Procedures in June, encouraging them to visit Ethiopia to investigate the government crackdown on the Oromo protests. We met with staff of several special procedures, discussing the possibility of a country visit and also talking about what role the Oromo diaspora could play in assisting people who might want to submit individual communications to the special procedures. To learn more about how to engage with the UN Special Procedures, read pages 211-222 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA and The Advocates Host a Side Event
While the Human Rights Council is in session, NGOs with consultative status, like The Advocates for Human Rights, can apply for space at the United Nations to host a “side event.” To learn more about applying for consultative status with the United Nations, read pages 310-312 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA representatives present at the side event
IOYA Vice President, Sinke Wesho (right) presents at the side event

The Advocates and IOYA hosted a side event called “Diaspora Engagement on Human Rights: Ethiopia as a Case Study.” I introduced the audience to our Paving Pathways toolkit, and then I turned the floor over to my IOYA colleagues. IOYA’s President, Amane Badhasso, spoke about the ways in which the Oromo diaspora used social media to engage in advocacy surrounding the Oromo protests. To learn more about how you can conduct an effective human rights advocacy campaign, including a campaign using social media, read Chapter 7 , as well as Appendix C and D, of Paving Pathways.

IOYA’s Vice President, Sinke Wesho, talked about the issue of human trafficking from Ethiopia and the efforts of the diaspora to assist victims and document the problem. To learn how you can get involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA had invited members of the Oromo diaspora in the Geneva area to attend, but a mix-up by security at the entrance gate meant that most of them were not allowed into the building. Nonetheless, the event was well-attended. Even Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva attended, perhaps to monitor whether people were criticizing Ethiopia. He listened politely and when we opened the session up for questions and comments, he praised the IOYA representatives for their advocacy. But then he went on to suggest that the criticisms of the Ethiopian government were unfounded. After the event, people came up to congratulate the IOYA representatives and take photos. When the cameras began to flash, Mr. Hidug angrily lashed out at the people taking photos, insisting that he did not authorize anyone to take his photo: “This is Switzerland, so if someone says you cannot take their photograph, you must not do so!” From my perspective, though, nobody was interested in taking his photograph.

The Advocates Delivers Statements During Human Rights Council Debates, Prompts Ethiopia to Exercise Right of Reply
NGOs with consultative status can also take the floor and make statements during certain periods of the Human Rights Council’s debates. While we were in Geneva, I delivered two statements.

Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council
Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council

The first was during a general debate about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance following an interactive dialogue on access to justice with the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. I spoke about the importance of access to justice for Africans living in the diaspora, particularly for human rights violations that occurred in their country of origin. You can read my statement here, and watch me deliver it here. (Scroll down to Chapter 21 of the video.)

The second statement was during a general debate on technical assistance and capacity-building. I spoke about the importance of providing technical assistance and capacity-building to diaspora communities that want to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin and ancestry. I pointed to Ethiopia as a particularly relevant example, noting that the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation had stifled civil society work on human rights within Ethiopia. In such circumstances, I observed, it is particularly important to build the capacity of diaspora organizations to promote human rights in their country of origin. You can watch me deliver the second statement here. (Scroll down to Chapter 52 of the video.)

Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Miniester Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia's right of reply in response to The Advocates' statement to the Human Rights Council
Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia’s right of reply in response to The Advocates’ statement to the Human Rights Council

During these debates, countries may exercise a “right of reply” to respond to a statement made by another country or by an NGO. Mr. Ephrem Hidug, who had attended our side event earlier that day, felt compelled to respond to our statement. This time, though, he couldn’t stop the cameras from rolling.

He denied that the Charities and Societies Proclamation has had a negative effect on civil society organizations in Ethiopia, asserting that Ethiopia has thousands of organizations active on “advocacy, development, humanitarian, and other things.” Notably, he did not state that they work on human rights issues. You can listen to his full statement here at Chapter 69.

All Work and No Play . . . .

Switzerland's Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne
Switzerland’s Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne

As it turned out, at the end of our busy week in Geneva, Switzerland’s Oromo community had organized a celebration of Irreechaa, a harvest festival sometimes referred to as the “Oromo Thanksgiving.” The IOYA representatives and I traveled to Lausanne, a lovely town on the shore of Lake Geneva, and enjoyed a wonderful day soaking in Oromo culture, music, and food. Oromos had come from all over Switzerland–some had driven from more than 2 hours away–to join in the celebration. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and their eagerness to hear what we had accomplished during our brief visit.

Advice for Diaspora Advocates Around the World: It’s a Long-Term Commitment

Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of Palais Wilson in Geneva
Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva

After our busy week in Geneva, I asked IOYA President Amane Badhasso to reflect on what she’d done and lessons learned. I encouraged her to share advice that she would give to other diaspora organizations–both Oromo groups and other diaspora communities–that want to promote human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. Here are her recommendations:

The promotion of human rights is a long-term commitment, and those who want to implement/promote human rights in their country of origin should understand the issues within their country of origin and tell stories from the perspective of those on the ground. In addition, it is important for those in the diaspora to utilize all tools available to lobby their country of residence and assure that the international community is aware of various abuses in the country of origin. It is also crucial to educate the public and use resources available to collaborate with groups that deal with human rights advocacy so that a practical outcome could come out of advocacy.

During our week in Geneva, we learned about many ways the Oromo diaspora can engage in advocacy at the United Nations. IOYA can’t take on all of these strategies on its own; there are many opportunities for other diaspora groups to get involved. But our advocacy with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was an important step in raising visibility about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? What ways can you engage with the United Nations to promote human rights in your country of origin or ancestry?

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts about human rights in Ethiopia:

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Ambo Protests: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Going Back (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

The Torture and Brutal Murder of Alsan Hassen by Ethiopian Police Will Shock Your Conscience (by Amane Badhasso at Opride)

#OromoProtests in Perspective (by Ayantu Tibeso at Twin Cities Daily Planet)