Easter Eggs and Chocolate Bunnies – Child Labour in the Chocolate Industry

By Markus Pohlmann

Easter is drawing near and with this we ask, which sweets we are to give as a present. Answers to these questions have lost ease over the last decades because the use of child labour on cocoa plantations remains a persistent problem.

Source: Pixabay

According to a recent study by Tulane University in New Orleans, the use of child labour has continued to increase in recent years with the expansion of cocoa production. Anyway, who wants to give as a present something that has been produced with child labour?

Let us take Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana as examples. Together, the two countries account for a large part of the world’s cocoa production, and are known for frequent use of child labour to harvest cocoa as well as for the trade in child slaves. According to the estimates of Tulane University’s study, around 3.6 million children worked in 2013/14, which is almost 2/3 of all children in these two countries. Despite the statements of the chocolate producers, the number of child labour has even increased by 5 percent since the last study in 2008/09. Even in the case of 5-to-11-year old children, more than half of them are carrying out child labour, including using sharp machetes to harvest cocoa. . Back in 2001, the leading chocolate producers have already agreed to “eliminate the worst forms of child labour” on cocoa plantations in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (Harkin/Engel Protocol 2001), only to water down this target again in a framework agreement in 2010. Now the worst forms of child labour are to be reduced by 70 percent by 2020 (Joint Declaration 2010). But probably this agreement won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. And the violation of this voluntary agreement still carries no legal or political consequences, even though the US Supreme Court endorsed litigations under America’s foreign liability law (the Alien Tort Claims Act, ATCA) in the case of Nestlé (Kitkat, Smarties, Lions etc.) in 2016. Stephen Wilson, the judge in charge of the case, dismissed the lawsuit against Nestlé and Cargill over child slavery on 2 March 2017 on the grounds that “the former child slaves had failed to show that any domestic conduct by the two companies was linked to the use of forced labor at their overseas supplier” (Bloomberg 10.3.2017; Doe v. Nestle SA, 05-05133, U.S. District Court, Central District of California). The Lawyers of the child slaves have appealed. Whatever the case turns out to be in court, the damage to the image of chocolate producers and their Easter bunnies persists.

What is the problem with the abolition of child labour?

If the chocolate producers now keep attracting the attention of justice, the entire system of chocolate production is rolled up from behind. Certainly, chocolate producers do not pick up their goods directly in Côte d’Ivoire or Ghana. Neither do they perform purchasing there themselves. Rather, innumerable small farmers, using their own children and other people’s children to grow cocoa, sell their crops at low prices to intermediaries, who in turn sell them on to exporters. These exporters then ship harvested cocoa to, for instance, the US or Europe, where a part of the cocoa are sold on commodity futures exchanges (e.g. New York, London) to suppliers and producers in the food industry. It is not uncommon for this market, which supplies chocolate producers with cocoa beans, to be interposed with much speculation. Like other markets, this market does not play by the principles of fairness either. In principle, it is a value chain characterized by the legacy of colonialism (Zündorf 2001), with corresponding exploitation of the farmers as immediate producers of raw material. In this neo-colonial capitalism these farmers do not get enough money for their cocoa beans to pay for the workforce. Their own children must work. And if this is not enough, other people’s children and child slaves from Mali, Burkina Faso or Nigeria join in. Although, for example, Côte d’Ivoire has ratified all laws against child labour, the containment thereof is not a priority in this corruption-riddled country. Why? Because they would put the existence of their farmers at risk. Thus, since Côte d’Ivoire is hardly able to prosecute child labour abuses and child traffickers corrupt the political system by paying bribes, a state regulation of the problem on the local level is not yet in sight. With the exception of the farmers, everyone earns handsomely and the farmers cannot do without, because this would endanger their existence. Moreover, time and again there is political turmoil, and civil wars or civil war-related situations make any political regulation even more difficult.

Corporate Social Responsibility – decoration of the corporate facade?

As for the producers of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, even if they are well-intentioned, it is not easy to fulfil enterprises’ social responsibility in this situation. On the one hand they benefit from this system. On the other hand, it is difficult to assume sweeping responsibility in the fight against child labour beyond lip services and social initiatives. The most radical alternative, which is to end cocoa cultivation once and for all in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, would have substantial consequences for both countries. Likewise, alternative cultivation regions, such as Brazil, do not appear significantly different in these aspects. The other radical alternative – chocolate producers carry out cocoa production locally on their own plantations or to organize everything on their own – looks colonial. The road in between, which most producers now slowly and hesitantly pursue, is no less stony. Even certifications, such as UTZ (UTZ is a programme and seal of quality for the sustainable cultivation of agricultural produces and has been run since 2002 by a foundation of the same name headquartered in Amsterdam), have shown that these are by no means a guarantee that no child labour will take place. In the quagmire of systemic corruption and human trafficking, in countries often plagued by civil wars and political turmoil, controls are difficult and compliance with regulations is often itself the subject of corrupt negotiation processes. The companies do not have to wait a long time for the next journalist to film the children at work on certified plantations. If the producers in this case are serious about “Corporate Social Responsibility” rather than regard it merely as a decoration of the corporate facade, they must turn the entire business model upside down. However, there is no sign that this is what the majority of chocolate producers are doing right now. Even our supermarkets and discount stores still react too little to the sustainability of child labour.

What about exclusively fair trade and product boycott? The economists Mattias Döpke and Fabrizio Zilibotti have already pointed out in 2009 that this form of assuming social responsibility by us, the consumers, unfortunately often has the opposite effect of what is to be achieved. Many families are becoming impoverished, slipping even deeper into the corrupt and criminal shadow economy, and local politicians continue to lose possibilities of regulation. The result is: child labour is increasing instead of decreasing. They therefore propose a different solution based on Mexico’s state programme of PROGRESA: “In 1998, the then government decided to stop subsidizing the price of tortillas – and thereby support rich families indirectly, but rather to directly support poor households financially. The decisive point: money is only given to those who send their children to school rather than to work in the field. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the success of these direct economic incentives: in regions where the programme has been introduced, child labour has declined significantly, and more children, especially elderly ones, attend school. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, founded by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, also awards micro credits only to women who send their children to school”. (Döpke, Hilft Fairtrade wirklich?)

That seems reasonable, but then which sweets should we give as a present now? The best is not to give any, but for many of us it would be too radical. We advocate the lesser evil: the more we succeed in making fair trade become our standard, the more producers and discount markets are able to orient themselves towards it.

Happy Easter!



Doepke, Matthias, and Fabrizio Zilibotti. “INTERNATIONAL LABOR STANDARDS AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF CHILD‐LABOR REGULATION.” Journal of the European Economic Association 7.2‐3 (2009): 508-518.

Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol: http://chocolatechildlabour.weebly.com/harkinengel-protocol.html

„Harkin-Engel-Protokoll“: Protocol for the growing and processing of Cacao Beans and their derivative products in a manner that complies with ILO Convention 182 concerning the Prohibition and immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor

John Nestlé, et al. v. Nestlé, S.A., et al.: Case 2:05-cv-05133-SVW-MRW Document 249 Filed 03/02/17 Page 1 of 12 Page ID #:2202, United States District Court Central District of California.

Welthandel: Hilft Fairtrade wirklich? http://www.geo.de/natur/nachhaltigkeit/3066-rtkl-welthandel-hilft-fairtrade-wirklich.

School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine Tulane University. “Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas”. FINAL REPORT 2013/14. Tulane University 2015.

Zündorf, Lutz. “Nachwirkender Kolonialismus und intersektorale Verknüpfung im Spektrum von Markt und Hierarchie. Austauschbeziehungen zwischen Industrie- und Entwicklungsländern in der Weltwirtschaft des Tabaks”. (The Aftermath of Colonization and Forms of Transactions between Agriculture and Industry Exchange Relations between Industrialized and Developing Countries in the World Economy of Tobacco). Zeitschrift für Soziologie, Jg. 30, Heft 4, August 2001, S. 247–266.