Should Food That Comes From Suppliers Who Use Child Slave Labor Be Packaged With A “Child Slavery” Label?

October 27, 2015  |  

More and more food companies are bearing the “Fair Trade” label to promote the fact that their goods are made with the idea of addressing ethical concerns like poverty, sweatshop labor, and environmental degradation prevention.

While this is a step in the right direction, I do wonder if that is enough to end the global practice of slavery and exploitation of labor, which has been fueled by our consumer-capitalist system.

I was thinking of that while reading about this lawsuit filed in California against the three biggest makers of chocolate. The suit filers allege that the chocolate makers failed to disclose that their chocolate had been produced with the help of child slave labor. As such, they are asking the courts to order the companies to pay monetary damages to the residents of California as well legally require chocolate makers to include labeling about their alleged support of child slavery on the packaging.

According to Courthouse News Service:

Three of the nation’s largest chocolate companies – Mars, Nestle and Hershey – get cocoa from suppliers that use child slave labor, customers claimed Monday in three federal class actions.

All three lawsuits, filed by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, claim the candy giants “turn a blind eye” to human rights abuses by cocoa suppliers in West Africa while falsely portraying themselves as socially and ethically responsible.

“America’s largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labor, much less child slave labor, anywhere in their supply chains,” the complaints state.

They accuse the companies of false advertising and violations of California business and consumer laws. All the plaintiffs claim they would not have bought the defendants’ chocolate had they known it was produced with child slave labor.

All cite the defendants’ corporate responsibility statements, including Hershey’s declaration that it has “zero tolerance for the worst forms of child labor in its supply chain.”

Also, as this article in the Daily Beast entitled “Lawsuit: Your Candy Bar Was Made By Child Slaves” notes, West Africa produces two-third of the world’s cacao beans. But those cacao farms are often home to some of the world’s most horrifying examples of slave labor and exploitation.

It is a fact that had been highlighted in the award-winning documentary from 2000 called Slavery: A Global Investigation. In it, 19 boys, who had been enslaved and forced to work on cacao farms in the Ivory Coast, share stories of being kidnapped and having to endure daily beatings.

According to the Daily Beast, the reaction to the atrocities featured in the film inspired Congress, particularly Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), to try and pass legislation requiring the Federal Drug Administration to introduce “slave free labeling.” However, before it was set to be voted on, the Daily Beast article states that three major chocolate makers introduced their own self-regulating oversight agreement called the Engel-Harkin Protocol.

The terms of the protocol promised a thorough investigation into allegations of child slavery at the cacao farms the chocolatiers sourced from.

However, as the Daily Beast article notes:

In the 15 years since the documentary sparked outrage, there are more child laborers in the cocoa industry than ever before. The companies have not only failed to stop the “worst forms of child labor”; they’ve seemingly made it worse. A report released on July 30, 2015, from the Payson Center for International Development of Tulane University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor found a 51 percent increase in the number of children working in the cocoa industry in 2013-14, compared to the last report in 2008-09. The number, they found, now totals 1.4 million. Those living in slave-like conditions increased 10 percent from the 2008-09 results, now totaling 1.1 million. The study concludes that while “some progress has been made,” the goal of reducing the number of children in the industry had “not come within reach.”

The right side of our political discourse in this country says that we should leave these decisions up to the free market. Sometimes, I think that side has a point. The people should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to support companies that source through exploitative labor practices. But the thing is, people have to know about these things.

And while the Fair Trade movement is fantastic, I think we need something a little more direct. That is the only way things will begin to change.

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