Pretty Ribbons of Pain

 (I took the decision to post this after having received excellent feedback from many editors, sadly though mainstream publication is unrealistic due to the advertising paid for by chocolate companies to magazines.The advertising is a major source of many magazines revenue).

Four billion pounds a year is spent on chocolate by the British and, despite the downturn in most retail markets, UK retailers are expecting to sell over eighty million Easter eggs this year.

Sales of these ovoid confections have steadily risen over the past few years, due to clever marketing including television and film branding, and multiple purchase options.

In March 2011, The Guardian reported that the price of an egg had risen by 21%; multiply this by the seventy-eight million sold and the figures look like a lottery win. .

In January the price of cocoa rose by 6.2% to £2,103 per tonne, the increase in VAT and political unrest in Cote d’Ivoire were cited as two reasons for the dramatic price hike. But there’s a much higher price being paid on the cocoa plantations, and that price is youth.

It is estimated 284,000 children work in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast. Some work on family farms and enjoy the benefits of family life, but for most it’s a different story.

No one knows exactly how many children, aged between 6 and 16 have been kidnapped and trafficked into this West African country for the sole purpose of picking cocoa beans for the world’s major chocolate manufacturers. The Save the Children charity, estimates that around 15,000 boys cross the border each year.

The existence of child labour, in the country that produces over 35% of the world’s cocoa for the chocolate industry isn’t a recent revelation. In fact, for many years children’s charities have campaigned for an end to this forced labour.

Despite being aware of the continued kidnapping and trafficking of boys, the major players in the industry such as Mars, Nestle, Kraft and Cadbury Schweppes refuse to speak individually on the topic, referring to it simply as an “industry” issue.

The young boys are sold into child labour for as little as £18, and live and work under inhumane conditions whilst suffering appalling abuse. Many are imprisoned on farms and regular beatings are handed out to break their spirit. These beatings are used as an example of what will happen should a boy try to escape. The sad reality is that due to the regime of fear they are living under, many never attempt to escape.

The lucky slaves are fed corn paste and bananas, whilst the unlucky ones are beaten, whipped and grateful for whatever food comes their way. Despite being underfed and malnourished they are still expected to work in the tropical sun for twelve hours. Most of the boys work shirtless, and many bear the marks of their toil across their shoulders, where the 50 pound (22 kg) jute sacks have cut into their skin. These cuts and bruises receive no treatment and most heal leaving ugly, disfiguring scars.

The sacks are often taller than the young boys expected to move them, and initially many will stumble, dropping their cargo. If this happens the boys are beaten until they are able to lift the sack once more onto their bleeding backs and continue to work.

In the evening the slaves are locked away, again an attempt to prevent escape. The boys will be crammed into a small room, with just rush matting or bare planks to sleep on. The toilet facility is usually a tin can to urinate in, and the ventilation is a hole in the wall the size of a tennis ball. As you can imagine, in these confined and humid conditions disease can become established very quickly. Illness goes untreated and the bodies of boys that die are dumped, so rife is the trade that it doesn’t take long for the vacancy to be filled again.

Some boys do manage to escape; however, as they have nowhere to go to seek refuge most are caught again. Any boys caught escaping will often have the soles their feet cut with razors to prevent them running away again.

Most of the boys trafficked come from the neighbouring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, the sons of street traders or slum children. Some are even sold by their parents, tricked into believing they will have a better life over the border. Bus stations are the favourite haunt of the slave traders and here there’s always an abundance of lost and homeless. These children, who spend their days begging, are easy prey, and with promises of a good life and money to support their families it’s difficult for them to refuse.

To make a pound of chocolate it takes around four hundred beans, these boys must collect ten cocoa pods and using a dangerously sharp machete they must extract the beans, again accidents are commonplace and the boys receive very little, if any, treatment to wounds. The sad thing is, none of these boys will ever see or taste the processed chocolate that they work so hard to help produce.

The chocolate industry hasn’t just sat back and ignored the plight of these boys; back in 2001 the major producers signed a pledge stating that by 2005 they’d help to put an end to forced child labour in the chocolate supply chain. Small scale community projects have been set up, and there is now chocolate on the shelves in the UK that is guaranteed to be free from child trafficking. However, despite the pledge, they missed the deadline and extended it to 2008. The 2008 deadline has not been met and we are now in 2012, when will these companies act upon their promises?

There have been some changes, Cadbury owned, Green and Black made their entire UK range Fairtrade from 2010, pledging to extend it to their entire range worldwide in 2011. Cadbury also re-branded Dairy Milk in the UK making this chocolate bar a Fairtrade product. This is sadly just one bar out of hundred and fifty-four that I counted on their website.

Other companies have been trying to clean up their image too, Nestlé now also make their four-fingered KitKat, for retail in the UK and Ireland from Fairtrade cocoa. Mars, one of the giants in the industry, appear to be making the bravest of pledges. Now committed to only using Rainforest Alliance cocoa in their Galaxy brand of bars, they furthermore promise to apply this across their entire product range globally by the end of 2020.

The Mars website shows the company’s commitment to sustainability within the cocoa farming community, but their commitment and pledge to ending child labour is conspicuous by its lack of presence.

Are they doing enough, or are they just making hollow gestures? It’s recognised that the Fairtrade farmers that supply these companies are benefitting, but is it too little too slow?

Maybe one way to guarantee chocolate is free from trafficking and exploitation is to legalise clear labelling (coffee and wine stipulate the country or countries of origin) with a printed guarantee on the product that states that the chocolate we are putting into our mouths has not been made from beans picked by trafficked children. We would be a step closer to making real progress.

So this Easter, as you accept the beautifully decorated egg from your loved one, please remember the pain behind the pretty ribbon that binds both the chocolate and the boys.

© Barry Lillie 2011

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One Response to Pretty Ribbons of Pain

  1. dragonmis says:

    I remember doing a comprehension on this at with the kids at school years ago, so it’s depressing to see that things have not really changed.

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