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Taking Child Slavery Out of Valentine's Day

February 14, 2005|Tom Harkin and Eliot L. Engel | Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) is a member of the House International Relations Committee.

On Valentine's Day, there will be no chocolate gifts for young Aly Diabate. "I don't know what chocolate is," said Aly, who was forced into slavery at age 11 to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast. Aly's ignorance of chocolate is forgivable. Like tens of thousands of other child slaves on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, he subsists on a diet of corn paste and bananas.

Less forgivable is the fact that chocolate lovers in the West have been kept in the dark about these harsh realities. Few realize that most of the cocoa beans that go into Nestle, Mars and Hershey candy bars come from Ivory Coast, where thousands of enslaved boys -- some as young as 9 -- work in the most squalid, brutal conditions imaginable.

According to one report, the child slaves of Ivory Coast "are whipped, beaten and broken like horses to harvest the almond-sized beans that are made into chocolate treats for more fortunate children in Europe and the United States."

We have long been active in efforts to stop exploitative child labor, as well as trafficking in slaves. So when news reports on the abuse of children on cocoa farms first emerged in 2001, we were determined to stop it. We knew that if consumers learned about the brutal realities of cocoa production, their taste for chocolate would sour. Sales -- and the Ivorian economy -- would plummet. But that was not our goal. We wanted to stop child slavery, not chocolate production.

We viewed a legislative remedy not as a first resort but as a last resort. So, in good faith, we engaged the major chocolate companies in lengthy, intense negotiations. The result was the Harkin-Engel Protocol, signed in 2001.

The companies agreed to join with other stakeholders to produce an agreement for eliminating the worst forms of child and slave labor throughout the chain of chocolate production, and to do so expeditiously. They also agreed to implement an industrywide voluntary certification system to give a public accounting of labor practices in the cocoa-growing countries. This would enable consumers to make better-informed choices.

This kind of certification approach is already being used effectively to combat trafficking in "blood diamonds." In several diamond-rich African countries racked by civil war and human rights abuses, belligerents have funded their activities by mining and selling diamonds. The Clinton administration helped to create a country-of-origin certification system for diamonds. And President Bush signed a law prohibiting importation into the United States of any diamonds not controlled by this system.

There are an estimated 1.5 million small cocoa farms spread across four desperately poor countries in Africa, including Ivory Coast. The protocol established a public-private partnership enlisting government, industry, labor unions, nongovernmental organizations and consumer groups. The U.S. government's role is to ensure that whatever certification plan emerges from this process is credible and effective in eliminating abusive child- and slave-labor practices in the cocoa industry and ensuring the rehabilitation of the victims.

We have done our best to accommodate the chocolate companies. We preferred a two-year deadline for the creation of an industrywide certification regime, but agreed to four years. We all agreed that the regime was to be completed on July 1, followed by rigorous implementation.

Last month, however, the companies informed us that they would not meet the deadline. Instead, they planned to initiate a small pilot program in Ghana and, perhaps, in Ivory Coast. Although this is certainly a positive step, it falls woefully short of the robust action promised in the protocol.

The time for talk has passed. Children are suffering. Will the chocolate companies redouble their efforts and make good on their commitments? Or, as with blood diamonds, will legislation be necessary? Our preference is for the chocolate industry to take charge of its own destiny. But if corporate responsibility is lacking, government will have a responsibility to act.

This Valentine's Day, much of our chocolate will be bittersweet -- tainted by the suffering of Aly Diabate and countless other cocoa slaves. Our hope is that, by next Valentine's Day, consumers will be able to purchase chocolate with a clear conscience.

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