N° 38-39. April-July 2014
Article published on 21 July 2014
dernière modification le 31 December 2014

by C.P.
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[*INTERNATIONAL*]

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The Oscar winning success in March for British film director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, set in 19th century USA, again turned the spotlight towards the present day reality that, far from being abolished, slavery still thrives in many parts of the world.

Despite all the pledges and promises to honour human rights and respect international law, our governments along with international bodies, NGOs and their ‘corporate partners’ have collectively failed to break the chains of bondage for the 30 million men, women and children estimated to be enslaved today.

At one stage in 2001, it looked as though some of the corporate culprits would be called to account when they faced an attempt by two notable US legislators to oblige confectionery companies to carry a label verifying no child slave labour was involved in the production of their chocolate bars. Predictably they faced massive opposition from the cocoa industry and chocolate manufacturers who lobbied successfully for a voluntary arrangement. The outcome was the Harkin-Engel Protocol signed in 2001 with a commitment that «by 1 July 2005, the industry will develop and implement industry-wide standards of public certification that cocoa has been grown without any of the worst forms of child labour ».

Despite a threat to reintroduce the labelling legislation if the 2005 deadline was not met, the self-regulation process turned out to be a fudge, a holding operation to avoid the embarrassment of an entire industry having to admit that the ingredients it uses are tainted by being produced by the hands child slaves. Instead of facing tough legislation, the industry has supported a corporate circus of regular reports and meetings where everyone sympathises with how difficult and intractable the problem is but little meaningful gets done.

Nevertheless in 2005 three major corporate food giants, Nestle, Cargill and ADM were named in an action brought on behalf of three children from Mali said to be victims of trafficking, taken from their homes and forced into slavery on cocoa plantations in the Côte d’Ivoire at the age of 12 to 14 years old. Claiming to have been whipped, beaten and imprisoned, one testified to having had his feet cut after trying to escape. The civil action charges that the three corporations aided, abetted or failed to prevent the torture, forced labour and arbitrary detention that they had suffered as child slaves, and alleges violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act, Torture Victim Protection Act, US Constitution and California state law. The action also claimed that the corporations profiting from child labour violated international conventions, the law of nations and customary international law.

Unsurprisingly, despite the public pledges that these big brands were against slavery, they have fought the case for nearly a decade, frustrating the ‘Mali slaves’ action until only at the very end of last year did they win a US Appeal Court ruling permitting them to proceed with their civil claim in the Californian courts.

The US State Department has itself acknowledged in the past that 15,000 children aged between 9 and 12 years were forced to work on cocoa, coffee and cotton farms in the Côte d’Ivoire. The corporate fear is that the Mali test case could open the floodgates for a class action on behalf of thousands more.

Meanwhile the public relations platitudes flow forth with claims that the industry has poured millions into supporting efforts to end child slavery. Closer scrutiny suggests that many of the corporate token gestures are mere labelling of marketing and productivity initiatives, interpreting demands for increased production as a generous move to raise incomes, ignoring the likelihood that demanding increased output will only increase the risk that child labour will be used.

While millions of more fortunate children indulged in the traditional Easter chocolate binge, how many have been taught how that chocolate is obtained, and how many gave a moment’s thought to the other children labouring in cocoa plantations?

At present cocoa sold with the Fair Trade label amounts to 0.5% of the total sold according to the International Cocoa Organization. That leaves 99.5% of the cocoa market still unable to verify that it is ethically produced after more than a decade of campaigning, threats of legal action and promises of voluntary compliance instead of regulation.

In reality the global confectionery trade has done little of significance except forestall the challenge to end malpractices because it foresees an imminent shortfall in cocoa production alongside massive growth in the $110 billion a year chocolate market, stimulated not least by its sophisticated marketing and predatory pricing.

It is doubly ironic that the cynical profiteering exploiting the alluring nature of the chocolate flavoured sugar-fat combination contributes to a serious obesity problem among its consumers while still leaving poverty-stricken subsistence suppliers struggling with the dark shadow of child slave labour hanging over them.

Neville Rigby


Painting from Jane Frere

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