Monday, January 28, 2013

Child Slavery in the Chocolate Industry
Justice Is What Love Looks Like In Public
Published in the Sun January 27, 2013

Julie Clawson and her daughter Emma enjoy a fair trade s'more

“I don’t doubt that nearly all of us morally oppose forcing children into slavery…  No parent would request the kidnapping, beating, and starving of other children so that they could serve chocolate cupcakes at their child’s birthday party, but nonetheless, this is essentially what happens.”


The startling quote above is from Austin author Julie Clawson, in her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices.  She is referring to child laborers on Ivory Coast and Ghana cocoa farms who are trafficked and forced into slavery to satisfy the enormous appetite for chocolate in America and Europe.  Some of these children are kidnapped; others are sold outright by desperately poor parents in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali.  The children are not allowed to attend school and often do dangerous work with machetes or apply pesticides without protective equipment.  UNICEF estimates that in Ivory Coast alone nearly 200,000 children are laboring illegally on cocoa farms.


Julie’s book doesn’t stop at slavery in the chocolate industry.  She also peels back the sleek marketing campaigns camouflaging some of our other voracious habits.  She discusses unfair wages for coffee farmers, seizure of oil-rich lands from indigenous people by energy companies, and America’s growing propensity to make everything out of plastic and then throw it all away after a momentary use.


Ever since I heard Julie speak last year I have wanted to meet with her, and finally the chance arrived.  Her two young children were back in school and Julie’s own studies at Austin Episcopal Seminary had not yet resumed.  In the driveway Julie’s car was plastered with bumper stickers advising that “Peace begins when the hungry are fed” and “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Julie, who is 6’1” plus high heels, has a tiny stud in the left side of her nose.  On the dining table were two dozen Harry Potter wands in various stages of construction for an upcoming birthday party.  Over tea, I asked what lit her fire for social justice.  Why does an ordinary suburban housewife, even one with magic wands, think she has the power to fight global injustice?


Julie has no illusions.  She knows that poverty and injustice will not end just because she buys fair trade chocolate and coffee.  She explains that the end of poverty and injustice is not her responsibility, but she feels obligated to join in the struggle.  “I have to at least start somewhere.”  Living ethically is reward enough.


Julie’s mission is to explain to comfortable American consumers that our buying habits affect farmers and children on the other side of the world long after the heady rush from the chocolate bar or double latte has worn off.  It’s like voting with your wallet.  Do you want to vote for African workers to be paid enough to feed their children and send them to school?  Or does the cheapest product get your vote even if it means impoverished farmers and trafficked children?


Julie loaded her book with well-researched stories and, what seemed to her at least, common sense suggestions.  She was surprised by some of the reactions the book provoked.  A few readers were really peeved that this nasty information about child trafficking had diminished their rightful enjoyment of chocolate.  Another shock came when Julie was an invited guest on a Christian radio talk show and was admonished by the host that her concern about the living conditions of the child laborers sounded “too socialist.”  Taken aback by such an attitude, she responded that she was just trying to live out Jesus’ commands.


In 2001, US Representative Eliot Engel and US Senator Tom Harkin introduced a bill that would have created a “slave-free” certification process for chocolate products.  The industry was vehemently opposed, because to have a few chocolate products certified slave-free would expose the others as not slave-free.  To make a long story short, we ended up with a voluntary, non-binding agreement (the Harkin-Engel Protocol) that the chocolate industry would cut back on the “worst forms of child labor.”  So it’s not surprising that twelve years later very little has changed under the voluntary program, except that child trafficking is more secretive because it is now illegal in every country in which it occurs.


Since we don’t yet have a slave-free certification process for chocolate, Julie recommends buying chocolate that is at least certified fair trade.  A trip to HEB reassured me that there are several fair trade chocolate bars easily available:  Dove, Green and Black, and Newman’s Own.  There are also numerous sites on the internet to order fair trade chocolate.


Does a “Fair Trade” label absolutely guarantee that no children were exploited to make your chocolate bar?  Unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect yet.  As long as poverty and greed exist there will be people who cheat.  In 2010 a BBC crew went undercover in Ghana and found some children working illegally even on farms that were supposedly certified fair trade.  The journalist offered one skeptical little worker a Kit Kat bar and, as the boy took a tentative bite, a big smile spread across his face.  After years of harvesting cocoa beans, it was his first taste of chocolate.



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