YORKSHIRE, UK — If you’re a farmer in Ivory Coast, the start of the cocoa season foretells another harvest tainted by modern slavery and shameful forms of child labor.
It has been known for more than a decade that each year forced workers — many aged 16 and younger — return to harvest the cocoa beans that are processed into the chocolate products we love.
The scale of the problem helps explain why it persists. Ivory Coast cocoa industry involves 3.5 million workers, and the country exports around 35 percent of the world’s cocoa beans.
Across the Atlantic, US consumers play an important role in holding businesses accountable for abuses in their supply chains. Later this summer, the expansion of Warner Bros’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a popular theme park in Orlando, Florida, will give consumers a new opportunity to show suppliers they won’t stand for products tainted by modern-day slavery.
The addition to the theme park will lure visitors with distinctive Harry Potter-themed foods and candies, including the famous Harry Potter Chocolate Frogs.
Behr’s, the company that supplies Harry Potter Chocolates, received an “F” for human rights. The rating is based on an independent investigation by Free2Work, which tracks companies based on their supply chains. Behr’s scored just 1 point out of 48 possible measures whether their operations are slavery-free.
To date, more than 400,000 activists have joined a campaign by anti-slavery organization Walk Free in partnership with the Harry Potter Alliance, asking executives at Warner Bros. to ensure Harry Potter Chocolates are free of slave-picked cocoa.
It is now more than 13 years since fears about slavery in Ivory Coast’s cocoa fields were confirmed in the Emmy-winning documentary Slavery: A Global Investigation. The film featured testimony from former slaves, who had been tricked, trafficked and trapped in modern slavery on cocoa farms for up to six years.
The teenagers interviewed had never tasted chocolate. They received only the bare minimum of food and shelter to keep them alive and working. One of the teenage boys in the film put the ordeal bluntly: “Our master used us as slaves. He took us there and never paid us a penny.”
After the story broke, the chocolate industry was forced into action. Ultimately, a treaty between the chocolate industry, consumers, governments, labor unions and human rights groups led to the signing of the Cocoa Protocol, with the goal of removing slavery and child labor from cocoa. While vast amounts of money and effort have been expended under the Cocoa Protocol, a CNN investigation earlier this year found that slavery is still a serious problem in Ivory Coast‘s cocoa farms.
Civil war, corruption and the fragmented nature of the farming industry in Ivory Coast are partly to blame, and resistance by some chocolate companies has also played a part. Given the myriad of challenges, it is essential for chocolate companies, such as Behr’s, to follow all possible measures to eliminate slavery from their supply chain.
If chocolate producers join the International Cocoa Initiative, long supported by Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s among others, and adopt a transparent policy of zero tolerance for slavery in their supply chain, it allows consumers to make an ethical choice about the chocolates we buy.
Unfortunately for Harry Potter fans waiting to sink their teeth into a chocolate frog, the response from Warner Bros. so far has been tepid. It dismissed the findings of the investigation and the demands of activists, simply stating that it was “satisfied” with the labor practices in its cocoa supply chain. The entertainment company refused to disclose the basis for its satisfaction.
Warner Bros’ detachment from the problem is disappointing, but it’s far from the end of the line. Consumers’ increasing awareness means the excuse of ignorance is no longer valid. Consumers should be mindful of their power of choice, and direct their chocolate buying to brands with slavery-free safeguards at every stage of the production process.
Kevin Bales is co-founder of Free The Slaves, and one of the original board members of the International Cocoa Initiative. Andrew Small is an anti-slavery campaigner for Walk Free.