The slave-work I eat for dessert

It’s not often that I think to myself, “Lord, have mercy on that dude when judgment day comes.  What a load of mess he’ll have to account for.”  I know, for those of you agnostics and atheists out there, that may sound terribly judgmental and awful.  But when I recently read about child slaves growing chocolate, and former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Dole’s efforts to stop regulation of child slavery, I really couldn’t help worrying about what kind of load of guilt that man carries… and about all the rest of us.

20100421.3212Again, I don’t know the whole picture, and maybe someone out there does and could enlighten me, but what I learned is this: There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today–more than there ever were during the days when slavery was legal, when books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were written and our country fought a war over the issue.  27 million slaves, many of them children.  Although those slaves are bought to do all sorts of jobs–factory work, harvesting, to be raped every day as sex workers–one fascinating job is making the chocolate our kiddies collect on Halloween.  There are an estimated 15,000 children in agricultural slavery in Cote d’Ivoire (on the West coast of Africa) alone, and as many as 284,000 children working on cocoa farms worldwide. As Julie Clawson writes in Everyday Justice, the book that jump-started my enlightenment process on this issue and provided much of the information in this post, “These slaves exist because it is profitable to others for them to exist.  There is a market for cheap labor, for cheap chocolate, for cheap sex” (p. 59).

So where does Bob Dole come in?  Nine years ago a bill passed in the House of Representatives to set aside $250,000 in the Food and Drug Administration to develop “slave free” labeling requirements on cocoa products.  But guess what.  None of the major chocolate companies would qualify for that kind of label.  So those big companies hired Bob Dole to lobby the Senate to stop the bill, and he succeeded.  Instead the Senate passed a compromised bill that said chocolate companies would voluntarily end child labor on cocoa farms by 2005.

2005 passed five years ago.  So how did that voluntary thing go?  Dismally.  In 2008 a study found no change in conditions on cocoa farms.  Another anti-slavery bill, The William Wilberforce Trafficking Vicitms Protection Reauthroization, passed in the House in 2007, but again, never made it through Senate.  Shame on us, U.S.A.

So picture for a moment, if you will, the tens and hundreds of thousands of enslaved kids across the world out there–I even give you permission to picture them for a moment with big eyes and outstretched skinny arms like the commercials love to portray them–standing in front of the politically savvy leaders who ten years ago decided they would have to stay put as slaves on cocoa farms.  Ten years ago steps could have been set in motion to end their slavery.  Today, ten years later, they’re right where they were, only ten years older, with thousands more having gone through their ranks.

The really scary thing, though, is not picturing Bob Dole and his cronies up in front of God and those big-eyed hungry kids.  The scary thing is picturing just about any of us, myself included, up there.  I certainly wouldn’t be the first worthy to cast the first stone at those big guys, or anyone else.  What have I ever done for those kids who picked my cocoa beans?

I was recently given a bar of chocolate that had stamped in big letters on the package, “This chocolate is guilt free.”  To most of us, guilt free chocolate means not having to worry about calories.  How many Americans will pay a few extra bucks a week to get light, low-calorie, weight-slimming foods and a gym membership to assuage their guilt of over-consumption?  How many would spend as much extra to get chocolate that’s guaranteed slave-free?  I know, guilt is a lousy motivation to do anything, but recognizing we’ve messed up is what allows us to clean up the mess.  And I know, if you toss in goals to clean up your buying habits on coffee, meat, clothing, and all the rest, it all starts to sound overwhelming.   But if we don’t start somewhere, we’ll end up standing like Congress, ten years after the bill could have been passed to take a huge dent out of child slavery, instead having done nothing.

Some more places to go to learn:

Documentary on modern-day slavery: Call+Response.

Read more: Stop the Traffik. End Human Trafficking.

Book: Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, by Carol Off.

Shopping opportunities for happy chocolate and more happy purchases:

Ten Thousand Villages.

Global Exchange.

Equal Exchange.

Divine Chocolate.

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