Sugar Plum Faeries and Child Slavery

Christmas is everywhere, Black Friday is upon us, and it seems that everywhere you look there is someone or something trying to sell itself to you, despite the fact that the US and global economies are far less than healthy, and most consumers lack the cash flow to go out and binge-spend this holiday season. And along with the holiday season comes sweets: cookies, pies, and sweet, delicious, melty, mouth-watering chocolate.

I, a white woman, college graduate, living the first world, in America where the chocolate industry pulls in about $13 billion annually, I love chocolate. I find it hard to get through the month without eating at least a little nugget of the dark stuff. But I’m starting to rethink that craving that I have, especially after hearing some grueling stories of how our chocolate (and many other sweets, for that matter) is made.

This isn’t new news, but it’s new to me, as I haven’t ever really looked into the reality of the chocolate industry, specifically on the front end. Joe and I were talking recently and he told me about a movie he saw that revealed some of the less-than-appetizing realities of child labor and human trafficking that the chocolate industry necessitates. That said, 70% of the profits from that $13 billion industry go into the hands of merchants and corporations, and only 5% ends up being paid to the farmers, most of which work small, family owned farms in places like West Africa and Central/South America. Given the slow-down of the global economy, and the results of trade agreements made in the last 15 years under the auspice of free-marketeering neo-liberal economics, small farmers in West Africa have been hit particularly hard by the fluctuations in market prices. The deregulation of the West African agriculture and the abolition of commodity boards in the region are concrete results of the rise of the economic regime of neo-liberalism, and have directly impacted the shape of agricultural labor in the region.

When market prices fall on small, family-owned cocoa farms where the annual revenue is between $30-100 per family member, you can imagine why child labor would become a reasonable solution. Many of the children working on these cocoa farms in Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon are children of the farmers themselves. Many of the children who end up becoming enslaved are sent off by their impoverished families in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo, with the hope that they will send back restitutions to help pay for necessities like food, health care, and education for their families. These families’ hopes are dashed when their children become another symptom of global capital, disgustingly underpaid child laborers.

About 2/3rds of the chocolate industry is controlled by Hershey and M&M/Mars, which has yet to adopt or enforce any strict regulations to better the economic and labor realities of the farmers from which they source their cocoa. In 2001, the US House of Representatives passed legislation (the Harkin-Engel Protocol) that would have become law to require a “slave-free” label on chocolate not produced under slavery conditions.

Somehow, US chocolate industry giants convinced Congress to change that standard and make the label “voluntary,” so consumers remain ignorant to whether or not their chocolate is made by child slaves. The closest indication we have to the ethics of our chocolate is the “fair-trade” certified label we find on our more exorbitantly priced chocolate products. (You can’t be certified “fair-trade” if you use slave-labor, so some of the reason why it is more expensive is because the farmers are actually paid to harvest it. That said, it is likely farmers see very little of the $3 you might shell out for a Black Panther Endangered Species Chocolate Bar.) We also have a pledge by Hershey and M&M/Mars that they would voluntarily certify slave-free chocolate by 2005. Of course, they missed their deadline, didn’t get it done until 2008, and even then only half of their chocolate produced from Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana has been said, by these corporations, to be “slave-free.” That leaves more than 30% of chocolate on the US market a mystery, and likely produced by West African child slave labor. This also leaves the US chocolate market, and West African agriculture, completely un-regulated, and the corporations in control of disclosing the reality of their labor practices. And we all know how committed to transparency giant US corporations are.

Furthermore, in a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine who farms the sugar beet harvest in Minnesota, I became aware to the disgusting source of the majority of all of the beet sugar we consume in America. The sugar beets are genetically modified, the patent to which is owned by none other than Monsanto. They are grown in fields that have been so over-farmed they are deserts, the only way life can thrive there is with the help of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers use diesel machines to mechanically harvest the beets, nearly asphyxiating themselves on the fumes. (Having been nearly asphyxiated by diesel fumes once while hitch-hiking in Arizona, I can attest to how horrifying and sickening it is.) Any health issues farmers have before going up to the harvest are exacerbated by the high levels of diesel fumes and toxic chemicals (Round-up, specifically) farmers are exposed to, notably in the dust that blows like apocalyptic sand-storms across the fields as they are harvested.

About half of the granulated sugar in America comes from sugar beets. In 2009, the majority of the US’s sugar beet farms switched to Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready genetically modified sugar beets. Huge plantation-like sugar beet farms in Minnesota, North Dakota and Idaho now use GMO beets. Monsanto’s beets have been kept out of fields for most of the past decade after candy giants Hershey’s and M&M/Mars said they wouldn’t use the GMO beets, but this statement remains yet another by the candy companies that is unregulated and off the books. And now, with GMO beet sugar flooding the US market, it is a wonder how these companies couldn’t use GMO sugar, given that the most available alternative to beet sugar is corn syrup, and most US corn syrup comes from Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready GMO Corn. More convincingly, American Crystal, the company that supplies beet sugar to Hershey’s, M&M/Mars and Kraft, announced in 2008 that it would begin sourcing its sugar from GMO beets. It is important to note that much like chocolate and slave labor, US food companies are under no regulatory obligation to disclose whether or not their products use GMO foods.

In a world controlled by money hungry corporations, with no regard for the quality of living of anyone, let alone the poor third world farmers that work for them, slaves or not, its no wonder that our delectable chocolate bars are made with genetically modified sugar and cocoa picked by illegally trafficked child slaves. I’m also not totally convinced that buying the “better” or “more ethical” alternative, ie: fair trade, will really solve this problem. Hershey’s and M&M/Mars are huge, they are powerful, they rake in billions of dollars annually in profits. These corporations wield massive amounts of political power, as evidenced by the outcome of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. I don’t personally believe that the free-market is democratic in nature, and I don’t believe that we “vote” with our dollars; I don’t believe that as consumers we shape the nature of the products we buy. These are the lies of green-washing corporations that have realized there is a market in convincing people they are doing-good by buying products, most of which aren’t even necessary in our everyday lives. These are the lies of a society that is controlled by capital, where the free-flow of capital and the artificial borders of nation states force children into slave labor.

While boycotting companies like Hershey’s and M&M/Mars may create public awareness and media hype around the issue of child slavery in West Africa, it probably won’t change their outlook on regulation, and it won’t likely change the percentage of profit that these corporations take from chocolate sales. It isn’t very likely that they will start paying farmers a paltry 10 or 15% of their sales, rather than 5%. This global discrepancy in where profits are allocated is a major part of the problem that causes child slavery. If the industry itself makes in excess of $10 billion annually, you would think that the hundreds of thousands of (child) field workers could be paid a fair wage.

We need to seriously challenge the power structures that govern our lives, from corpora-fascist to neo-liberal free market power, to even the non-profit charity industry that gives hand outs to impoverished people without challenging the nature of their oppression or working for real political empowerment. We need to realize where we are effective, and work to our strengths, rather than banging our heads against insurmountable odds, like these industrial complexes that we can barely conceptualize.

I had a dream the other night where Michael Jackson was singing a song something like “Africa, you didn’t tell us about the child slaves.” Like he had rescinded his whole “heal the world” thing. Food for thought.


~ by scamuic on November 25, 2010.

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