48 Slaves: Guilty Pleasures

Mmmmmmm … can you smell it? That warm, rich, inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee? Over 75% of all U.S. adults look forward to that first-sip moment, most on a daily basis. The morning beverage of choice is in fact the second most valuable commodity in international commerce, after oil. Despite the fact that coffee has been blamed for a multitude of ills over the years, recent studies have begun to turn that opinion around. It may surprise the majority of coffee drinkers to learn that their daily habit has many health benefits, including protection against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver cancer.

Unfortunately there’s another surprise lurking in the coffeepot, one that isn’t so sweet. Rampant slavery lends a bitter taste to the bean we so love. It’s a fact that the majority of the world’s coffee growers receive a tiny fraction of what we consumers pay for a cup of coffee, or even for the whole or ground beans at the grocer. Coffee plantation work in Guatemala pays a mere $3 per 100 pounds. Families are often forced to include their children in their efforts to meet that quota, thus exploited child labourers are a frequent companion to trafficking in this business.

In April of 2011, CNN reported that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a California-based company, of human trafficking across eight farms in Hawaii and Washington state. Two of those farms produced coffee.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2012 that coffee is produced with forced and exploited child labour in Ivory Coast, as well as throughout Latin America, with special emphasis on Guatemala. Workers are subject to confinement and abuse, and induced into work by labor brokers and the confiscation of identification documents from migrant workers. Though trafficked individuals may be participating in all stages of production prior to roasting, the studies show it to be most likely in harvesting.

Still want a cup o’ joe?

I know. You kinda want to stop reading now. I mean, that morning caffeine hit is sacred, at least for me. Somehow I’m sure it just won’t taste the same now. But coffee isn’t the only Blessed Bean under scrutiny for human rights violations in the supply line.

43% of the world’s cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast, some from the same farms as the coffee we already discussed. Many of the slaves in this industry are children whose desperate parents are tricked, selling them into debt bondage or outright slavery.

Americans spend $13 billion per year on chocolate. In fact, Hershey’s and M&M/Mars control two-thirds of the US chocolate market, most of which comes from Ivory Coast. Beginning in late 2000, Knight Ridder Newspapers, the BBC, and a collection of independent journalists began multiple investigations, all of which concluded that exploited child labourers and slaves between the ages of 7 and 16 were smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to cocoa plantation owners in  Ivory Coast. Lured in with the promise of lucrative work, these children are then forced to work in harsh conditions with machetes or dangerous pesticides. Beatings are routine. The chocolate industry promised it would take action to stop these practices, but a 2011 Tulane University study found that a very tiny percentage had received any aid at all. According to the Dominican Sisters of Houston, Mars has a system in place to ensure no forced labor occurs in their supply chain. Hershey does not.

I should point out that these reporting organizations don’t all use the same definition of “child labour” and “child work.” The International Labour Organization (ILO) would like to eliminate all labour for children under 16. However, they do realize that we can’t make it go away overnight. In some instances, child work is required for the continuation of the family or the community. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour was added in 1999 and outlines which benefits children must receive (education, safe environment, etc.) Child workers are part of the culture in some places, such as on La Reina, the co-op plantation I visited in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, a few years back. In that instance the children worked in the harvest season and went to school the rest of the year. They were not enslaved. Their whole families lived and worked the plantation, and participated in fair trade practices and eco-tourism.

Okay, so now that I’ve soured your joy on two favorite things, let’s take a look at what we as individuals can do about it. Boycotting isn’t the answer; loss of sales across the board would only hurt the labourers and slaves, as well as  smaller farmers and families who aren’t doing anything wrong. Instead, mindful purchases can make a meaningful difference. For both coffee and chocolate, fair trade certified products are the way to go.

Fair trade policies ensure a fair living wage to farm workers, cruelty- and exploitation-free labor practices, healthy and safe working conditions, and environmentally sustainable methods. Both the coffee and chocolate industries have a number of products that have been fair trade certified. However, it should be noted that there are differences between the standard requirements among the certifying organizations. The Fair World Project offers a list of organizations along with their standards and a little about each one.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/22/13; some original links no longer function)