GUIGLO, Ivory Coast — Five boys are swinging machetes on a cocoa farm, slowly advancing against a wall of brush. Their expressions are deadpan, almost vacant, and they rarely talk.
The only sounds in the still air are the whoosh of blades slicing through tall grass and metallic pings when they hit something harder.
Each of the boys crossed the border months or years ago from the impoverished West African nation of Burkina Faso, taking a bus away from home and parents to Ivory Coast, where hundreds of thousands of small farms have been carved out of the forest.
These farms form the world’s most important source of cocoa and are the setting for an epidemic of child labor that the world’s largest chocolate companies promised to eradicate nearly 20 years ago.
“How old are you?” a reporter asks one of the older-looking boys.
“Nineteen,” Abou Traore says in a hushed voice.
Under Ivory Coast’s labor laws, that would make him legal. But as he talks, he casts nervous glances at the farmer who is overseeing his work from several steps away.
When the farmer is distracted, Abou crouches and with his finger, writes a different answer in the gray sand — 15.
Then, to make sure he is understood, he also flashes 15 with his hands. He says, eventually, that he’s been working the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast since he was 10.
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The other four boys say they are young, too — one says he is 15, two are 14 and another, is 13.
Abou says his back hurts, and he’s hungry.
“I came here to go to school,” Abou says. “I haven’t been to school for five years now.”
The world’s chocolate companies have missed deadlines to uproot child labor from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. Next year, they face another target date and, industry officials indicate, they probably will miss that, too.
As a result, the odds are substantial that a chocolate bar bought in the United States is the product of child labor.
About two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa where, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than two million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions.
When asked this spring, representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands — Hershey, Mars and Nestle — could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor.
“I’m not going to make those claims,” an executive at one of the large chocolate companies said.
One reason is that nearly 20 years after pledging to eradicate child labor, chocolate companies still cannot identify the farms where all their cocoa comes from, let alone whether child labor was used in producing it.
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Mars, maker of M&Ms and Milky Way, can trace only 24 percent of its cocoa back to farms; Hershey, the maker of Kisses and Reese’s, less than half; Nestlé can trace 49 percent of its global cocoa supply to farms.
With the growth of the global economy, Americans have become accustomed to reports of worker and environmental exploitation in faraway places.
But in few industries, experts say, is the evidence of objectionable practices so clear, the industry’s pledges to reform so ambitious and the breaching of those promises so obvious.
Industry promises began in 2001 when, under pressure from the U.S. Congress, chiefs of some of the biggest chocolate companies signed a pledge to eradicate “the worst forms of child labor” from their West African cocoa suppliers.
It was a project companies agreed to complete in four years.
To succeed, the companies would have to overcome the powerful economic forces that draw children into hard labor in one of the world’s poorest places.
And they would have to develop a certification system to assure consumers that a bag of M&Ms or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup did not originate with the swinging of a machete by a boy like Abou.
Since then, however, the chocolate industry also has scaled back its ambitions.
While the original promise called for the eradication of child labor in West African cocoa fields and set a deadline for 2005, next year’s goal calls only for its reduction by 70 percent.
Timothy McCoy, a vice president of the World Cocoa Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said that when the industry signed onto the 2001 agreement, “the real magnitude of child labor in the cocoa supply chain and how to address the phenomenon were poorly understood.”
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Industry officials emphasized that, according to the pledge made to lawmakers, West African governments and labor organizations also bear some responsibility for the eradication of child labor.
Today, McCoy said, the companies “have made major strides,” including building schools, supporting agricultural cooperatives and advising farmers on better production methods.
In statements, some of the world’s biggest chocolate companies that signed the agreement — Hershey, Mars and Nestle — said they had taken steps to reduce their reliance on child labor.
Other companies that were not signatories, such as Mondelez and Godiva, also have taken such steps, but likewise would not guarantee that any of their products were free of child labor.
In all, the industry, which collects an estimated $103 billion in sales annually, has spent more than $150 million over 18 years to address the issue.
But when the businesses initially made the promise to eradicate child labor, according to industry insiders and documents, the companies had little idea of how to do so.
Their subsequent efforts have been stalled by indecision and insufficient financial commitment, according to industry critics.
Their most prominent effort — buying cocoa that has been “certified” for ethical business practices by third-party groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, has been weakened by a lack of rigorous enforcement of child labor rules.
The third-party inspectors typically are required to visit fewer than 10 percent of cocoa farms.
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“The companies have always done just enough so that if there were any media attention, they could say, ‘Hey guys, this is what we’re doing,’” said Antonie Fountain, managing director of the Voice Network, an umbrella group seeking to end child labor in the cocoa industry.
“It’s always been too little, too late. It still is.”
“We haven’t eradicated child labor because no one has been forced to,” Fountain added. “What has been the consequence ... for not meeting the goals? How many fines did they face? How many prison sentences? None. There has been zero consequence.”
According to the U.S. Labor Department, a majority of the two million child laborers in the cocoa industry are living on their parents’ farms, doing the type of dangerous work — swinging machetes, carrying heavy loads, spraying pesticides — that international authorities consider the “worst forms of child labor.”
A smaller number, those trafficked from nearby countries, find themselves in the most dire situations.
There’s ‘a lot of them coming’
During a March trip through Ivory Coast’s cocoa-growing areas, journalists from the Washington Post spoke with 12 children who said they had come, unaccompanied by parents, from Burkina Faso to work on cocoa farms.
While the ages they gave were consistent with their appearance, the Post could not verify their birth dates. In much of Burkina Faso, as many as 40 percent of births go unrecorded in official records, and many children lack identification documents.
The farms were easily visited because they typically lack fences, but people were often reluctant to talk about child labor, which is known to be illegal and is officially discouraged.
Asked about the extent of child migrants working on Ivorian cocoa farms, the farmer overseeing Abou and the other boys noted the steady stream of buses carrying people from Burkina Faso into the area. The Post’s reporters also observed those buses during the March visit.
There is “a lot of them coming,” said the farmer, who asked that his name not be used because he didn’t want to attract attention from the authorities. “It’s them who do the work.”
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The farmer said he was paying the boy’s “gran patron” — the “big boss” who manages the boys — a little less than $9 per child for a week of work and who would, in turn, pay each of the boys about half of that.
The farmer said he considers the boys’ treatment unfair but hired them because he needed the help. The low price for cocoa makes life difficult for everyone, he said.
“I admit that it is a kind of slavery,” the farmer said. “They are still kids and they have the right to be educated today. But they bring them here to work, and it’s the boss who takes the money.”
A vast wave
What makes the eradication of child labor such a daunting task is that, by most accounts, its roots lie in poverty.
The typical Ivorian cocoa farm is small — less than 10 acres — and the farmer’s annual household income stands at about $1,900, according to research for Fairtrade, one of the groups that issues a label that is supposed to ensure ethical business methods.
That amount is well below levels the World Bank defines as poverty for a typical family.
About 60 percent of the country’s rural population lacks access to electricity, and, according to UNESCO, the literacy rate of the Ivory Coast reaches about 44 percent.
With such low wages, Ivorian parents often can’t afford the costs of sending their children to school — and they use them on the farm instead.
Other laborers come from the steady stream of child migrants who are brought to Ivory Coast by people other than their parents. At least 16,000 children, and perhaps many more, are forced to work on West African cocoa farms by people other than their parents, according to estimates from a 2018 survey led by a Tulane University researcher.
“There is evidence that it happens, and it happens on a large scale,” said Elke de Buhr, an assistant professor and principal investigator on the study, done in collaboration with the Walk Free Foundation, a group working to end forced labor, and funded by the Stichting de Chocolonely Foundation.
The child migrants arrive amid a vast wave of people entering from Burkina Faso and Mali. Ivory Coast is home to 1.3 million migrants from Burkina Faso and another 360,000 from Mali, according to the United Nations.
Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast share an agreement on open borders.
Upon arriving in Ivory Coast’s cocoa-growing areas, child migrants are used to meet the demand on cocoa farms for arduous manual labor and stay year-round.
There is land to be cleared, typically with machetes; sprayings of pesticide; and more machete work to gather and split open the cocoa pods. Finally, the work involves carrying sacks of cocoa that may weigh 100 pounds or more.
“Côte d’Ivoire has long been seen as a land of better opportunity in this part of the world,” said McCoy, the industry spokesman. “That particular sort of form of trafficking speaks to a broader phenomenon that is not specific to cocoa, is not specific to Côte d’Ivoire but speaks of people seeking opportunity and that happens all over the world.”
‘A moral responsibility’
The most prominent, sustained public attention to the issue arose 18 years ago with reports from news organizations and the U.S. State Department that linked American chocolate to child slavery in West Africa.
“There is a moral responsibility ... for us not to allow slavery, child slavery, in the 21st century,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said at the time.
Engel introduced legislation that would have created a federal labeling system to indicate whether child slaves had been used in growing and harvesting cocoa.
It allotted $250,000 to the Food and Drug Administration to develop the labels.
The measure passed the House, but the industry was adamant that no government regulation was necessary.
“We don’t need legislation to deal with the problem,” Susan Smith, then a spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, told a reporter at the time. “We are already acting.”
Engel, along with then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, opted to negotiate an agreement with the chocolate companies.
Now known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, the deal kept federal regulators from policing the chocolate supply.
But the deal committed the chocolate companies to eradicate child labor from their supply chains and to develop and implement “standards of public certification,” which would indicate that cocoa products had been produced “without any of the worst forms of child labor.”
The top officials of Hershey, Mars, Nestle USA and five other chocolate companies signed onto the deal. The signing companies had “primary responsibility” for eradicating child labor, lawmakers said, but the Ivorian government, labor organizations and a consumer group also pledged support.
The protocol also specified a deadline: July 2005.
The industry created the International Cocoa Initiative, which was supposed to coordinate company efforts. The companies also formed a short-lived panel called the Verification Working Group.
In West Africa, the industry supported pilot projects for monitoring child labor.
Even some insiders say the early efforts were destined to fall short.
Peter McAllister, who led the International Cocoa Initiative from 2003 to 2010, said the companies were “desperate” to avoid the legislation and promised more than they could deliver.
“Was there any chance of child labor being eradicated by 2005? No, never,” McAllister said. “They set themselves up for a bit of a disaster because of this magic date.”
Shortly after the deadline passed, the industry sought to reconstrue the meaning of a key clause in the agreement.
In 2007, industry officials argued that the promised “standards of public certification” did not mean, as some negotiators had thought, the creation of consumer labels indicating that a chocolate bar was free of child labor.
“Everyone in that room negotiating understood we were there to create a labeling requirement,” J. William Goold, Harkin’s lead negotiator on the deal, said for this story. “We were talking about consumer labels on chocolate. Anybody who thinks the language in Harkin-Engel means anything other than labeling for consumers is engaged in cynical self-delusion.”
Instead, the industry said, the agreement meant that the companies would produce statistics on West African “labor conditions” and “the levels” of child labor in West Africa.
In 2011, a decade after signing the deal, industry officials also suggested that it had committed the companies to an impossible task.
“The industry in fact does not know of any (certification) system that currently, or in the near term, can guarantee the absence of child labor, including trafficked labor, in the production of cocoa in West Africa,” according to a 2011 letter from an industry group representing Hershey, Mars, Nestle and other companies, to researchers working on a study funded by the U.S. Labor Department.
“There was — and is — no road map to implement the protocol,” the letter said. The “industry has in good faith carried out that agreement, while acknowledging several setbacks.”
Three nonprofit groups — Fairtrade, Utz and Rainforest Alliance — provide labels to products that have been produced according to their ethical standards, which include a prohibition on child labor.
Over the past decade, the chocolate companies have pledged to buy increasing amounts of cocoa certified by one of these three groups.
Mars reports buying about half of its cocoa from certified sources; Hershey reports 80 percent.
In exchange for meeting the groups’ ethical standards, farmers are paid as much as 10 percent more for their cocoa.