The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Chocolate from misery:
African child labor

Aug 13, 2001

Responding to international protest, the west African country of Mali has announced that children will no longer be able to be taken out of the country without travel passes. Of course, the same authorities who turned a blind eye to the flood of children leaving the country will not be the ones to issue the travel passes. Youngsters from Mali have been taken out of Mali to the neighboring Ivory Coast to work on cocoa and cotton plantations.

Protesters in Europe and the U.S. have also demanded that international chocolate manufacturers begin labeling their products as a guarantee that child labor is not being used in these products. A congressman from New York introduced a bill, which was passed by the House, that requires companies to voluntarily label their products in order to show they are not produced by child labor.

The demand is, of course, unenforceable, which the Congress knows. Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is harvested from plantations located in tropical areas, first and foremost the Ivory Coast in western Africa. Often such plantations are located deep in the jungle, many hours walk from roads which are little more than dirt tracks. It is impossible to say with certainty how many people are working and what are their wages or ages.

More than 80 million children under 15 are estimated to be laboring in the poor countries of the world. According to one study, one in three children under 15 in east Africa is working and one in four children in west Africa is working. Their families are too poor to afford fees to send them to school. And often the countries themselves are too poor to provide schooling for all their children. In addition, the families need the extra income from their children’s labor in the poorest areas of the world where the average income can be less than $1 per day.

Some of the chocolate manufacturers have been accused of using child slave labor in growing the cocoa. And it is true that Africa and Asia are plagued by merchants who sell human beings, both young and old, for labor, as well as into prostitution or domestic slavery.

This problem is not limited to cocoa. The exact same circumstances hold true for all the manufactured products and raw materials circulating in the world, no matter if workers are picking cotton, manufacturing tee-shirts or tennis shoes or throw-away cameras. The same problem exists among those who harvest coffee beans, transport rice plants, or pick tea leaves. Capitalism requires wages as low as possible everywhere. And child labor obviously is paid less than adult labor and slave labor less than wage labor.

No amount of voluntary labeling by the manufacturers will change these circumstances by which raw materials and manufactured goods arrive from the poorer countries to be sold for the benefit of corporate owners in the rich countries.

The results will be exactly the same as what we see in U.S. supermarkets today: products carry a label which says they are “green” or “environmentally sound” or “organic,” without anyone being sure of what these catch phrases mean. One thing is sure: this labeling is simply one more excuse to raise the price!

Labeling will not provide a better life to the children of the poor countries – even if it does provide a light palliative to the guilty conscience of someone munching chocolate or sipping coffee lattes.

In a for-profit society, chocolate production – like all other production, especially in the poor countries – will never be sweet.