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Mars, Nestlé and Hershey pledged nearly two decades ago to stop using cocoa harvested by children. Yet much of the chocolate you buy still starts with child labor.

Behind much of the world’s chocolate is the work of thousands of impoverished children on West African cocoa farms.
Jul 03, 2019

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 Washington Post 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. The other four boys say they are young, too — one says he is 15, two are 14 and another, 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.”

Children from impoverished Burkina Faso take a break from work on a cocoa farm near Bonon, Ivory Coast.
A worker cuts a cocoa pod to collect the beans.
A steady stream of buses from Burkina Faso carry passengers and trafficked children as young as 12 to work in cocoa fields in Ivory Coast.

‘Too little, too late’

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 2 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 Nestlé — 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. Mars, maker of M&M’s 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.

Mars's efforts to eradicate child labor

Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100 percent of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025. More here.

Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50 percent of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

Percent traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24 percent is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to a farmer group.

Statement: “Protecting children and ensuring they have safe alternatives to work — including access to quality education — is a priority for Mars.”

2Mars's efforts to eradicate child labor

Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100 percent of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025. More here.

Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50 percent of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

Percent traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24 percent is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to a farmer group.

Statement: “Protecting children and ensuring they have safe alternatives to work — including access to quality education — is a priority for Mars.”

Mars's efforts to eradicate child labor

Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100 percent of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025. More here.

Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50 percent of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

Percent traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24 percent is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to a farmer group.

Statement: “Protecting children and ensuring they have safe alternatives to work — including access to quality education — is a priority for Mars.”

Mars's efforts to eradicate child labor

Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100 percent of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025. More here.

Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50 percent of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

Percent traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24 percent is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to a farmer group.

Statement: “Protecting children and ensuring they have safe alternatives to work — including access to quality education — is a priority for Mars.”

Mars's efforts to eradicate child labor

Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100 percent of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025. More here.

Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50 percent of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

Percent traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24 percent is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to a farmer group.

Statement: “Protecting children and ensuring they have safe alternatives to work — including access to quality education — is a priority for Mars.”

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