A good chunk of that deliciousness on our holiday dessert trays is sourced from lush farmlands of West Africa, where cocoa beans are tenderly grown and processed to meet the scrutiny of international quality controls. The end product is a painstakingly nurtured commodity valued like no other in the world. The same cannot be said of the children working the land.
That’s because the global agriculture industry continues to yield one particularly bitter crop: child labor. The big companies who run the massively profitable chocolate trade have done little to prevent trafficked and forced labor, and even less to address the poverty that pushes poor children into the fields. According to the field research just published by the International Labor Rights Forum, the problems that lead to child labor are more complex than the sad images we occasionally see of gaunt, cutlass-wielding kids in the fields. The global agricultural trade is structured to ensure that the most savage forms of resource extraction are linked into the most sophisticated commodities markets. Under this system, farmers are denied control over their production process and cannot negotiate fair prices or wages in the global marketplace.
The millions of farmers working in this decentralized production system have virtually no financial power over what happens to their crop en route to Western candy stores:
Farmers, who often work small plots of land in isolated cocoa communities, lack the organization required to take an active role in the decision-making processes that affect them at the industry, government or certification levels.… the lack of organization and communication among farmers compared to corporate and government actors further exacerbates the imbalance of power.
And since farming households are themselves impoverished, those most vulnerable to this precarious work are the hired migrant farm workers, including many children. Sometimes trafficked in from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, the workers may earn between $209 and $1045 annually toiling in brutal conditions. So thanks to the efficiencies of global markets, according to the ILRF, “a farmer with 2 hectares of land and average productivity will make about $755.30 per year in Côte d’Ivoire and $983.12 in Ghana, which is $2.07 per day and $2.69 per day respectively.” A child in a typical family of six must survive on the price of a couple of Hershey’s Kisses.
For an estimated half-million to 1.5 million child workers, whether they are trafficked or working for their own communities, extreme risk of abuse and injury loom. But their involvement in the workforce at such young ages is primarily the result of a more systemic deprivation.