Where's the Love Hershey? On Chocolate and Labor (Part II)

Back in November, the world lost a great humanitarian, activist and artist with the death of filmmaker/photographer U. Roberto (Robin) Romano. I had the honor of working with Robin last fall on a photoessay about farmworkers in New York's Hudson Valley. He was far and away the most dedicated advocate for human rights I had ever met. He worked tirelessly to open the eyes of the world to modern slavery conditions, especially those that involved children. He traveled around the globe to document and testify about these conditions. In 2012, he spoke with Dawn Brighid about his work documenting labor abuses in the chocolate industry, resulting in the article below. If you care about child labor, we urge you to get acquainted with Robin's work, and if you wish to make a gift in his honor, please give to the Kenyan Schoolhouse, a project Robin co-founded with a fellow filmmaker.

Maybe February should be “Child Labor Month.” If you read Chris Hunt’s blog post “Where’s the Love, Hershey? On Chocolate and Labor” last year, then you know that child labor is a reality in the chocolate industry today. And with close to 60 million pounds of chocolate sold for Valentine's Day alone, February is a great time to shine a light on child labor issues.

Last year, Chris Hunt's post, in which he professed not to care much about chocolate [gasp!], pointed out that even if you don’t care for chocolate and/or Valentine’s Day, you probably DO care about child labor. And it turns out that while big chocolate companies (including Hershey’s) have acknowledged for years that child labor exists, and many even signed the “Protocol for the Growing and Processing of Cocoa Beans and their Derivative Products,” also known as the Cocoa Protocol, there are still major labor abuses occurring.

A couple of weeks ago we watched Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano’s “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” a scary and eye opening documentary about child labor in Africa, focusing on the Ivory Coast, which is responsible for more than 40% of cocoa production globally. The filmmakers went in with hidden cameras and exposed the denial of government officials in the Ivory Coast. They showed us how the families were tricked into thinking that their children might have a better life (many were living in terrible poverty in Mali). They filmed frightened children being smuggled across the border and they found many children working in the cocoa fields. Often these children are abused and never paid or educated. My heart ached – even though I know that child labor exists, the reality was hard for me to witness. This direct film brought clarity to the problem for me and I imagine for many others too. For a more detailed review of the film, please read Tom Philpott’s Bloody Valentine: Child Slavery in Ivory Coast’s Cocoa Fields in Mother Jones.

After viewing the film, I was lucky to get the passionate filmmaker U. Roberto Romano on the phone to help me understand the Cocoa Protocol. In 2001, it was signed by Hershey’s, Nestle, Kraft, Cargill and many others as a voluntary commitment to become child labor-free by 2005. In reality it was a way to avoid government regulation and media scrutiny. But that 2005 date came and went and a new deadline date was set for 2008 (then to only decrease child labor by 50%). In 2008 the International Labor Rights Forum published a report called “The Cocoa Protocol: Success or Failure” showing that there had been no notable change.

“The original intent of the ‘protocol' has not been achieved, and consumers today have no more assurance than they did eight years ago that trafficked or exploited child labor was not used in the production of their chocolate.”

Romano postulated that companies such as Hershey were only ever concerned about their bottom line. Self-regulation isn’t the answer for these companies, which never researched the depth of the problem for serious answers in the first place, he told me. The Ivory Coast is difficult territory and it will be complicated to make changes happen here. Hershey is now shooting to hit the protocol targets by 2017, but if no real change has been made so far, what makes this new date any different? In order to create major change within the cocoa fields, companies like Hershey cannot continue business as usual, usual being a model where constant growth is a goal above the social impacts of production. Increased production will only lead to the need for more labor. Moving forward in such a way will never allow room to address the child trafficking and labor issues that they supposedly agreed to stop.

The Raising the Bar campaign (created by advocate groups including Global Exchange, Green America and International Labor Rights Forum) continues to put pressure on Hershey. In fact, they were planning to run an ad during the most recent Super Bowl, highlighting Hershey’s lack of transparency. But after Hershey’s announced that they are donating $10 million over the next 5 years to help educate West African farmers about trade and child labor issues, Raising the Bar pulled their ad. In that announcement, Hershey also made a commitment to fully switch their Bliss line of chocolate to independently certified cocoa by the end of 2012.

Many consumers are joining in to pressure Hershey’s to continue in the right direction. Pennsylvania eighth grader Jasper Perry-Anderson created a campaign on Change.org to encourage Hershey to source cocoa for more of their products ethically. “This is a great step that many of Hershey’s competitors have taken, but the rest of the cocoa Hershey’s buys should be responsibly sourced too.” Jasper was scheduled to deliver 15,000 signatures to Milton Hershey School Trust, which owns a large part of Hershey’s.

People everywhere are jumping in to tell Hershey’s what they think. Last year’s Hershey’s s'mores photo campaign on Facebook was hacked with people posting pictures of themselves with signs telling Hershey’s to change their practices. And even today, with no specific campaign happening, if you look at the Hershey’s Facebook wall it is sprinkled with notes calling attention to their horrible child labor practices. As consumers we can make our voices be heard by being diligent when buying fair trade chocolate – and getting active, even just on Facebook. Here’s a great example of note from a concerned chocolate lover posted on Hershey’s Facebook wall:

“I love Reese’s, Hershey’s hugs and kisses, and other great chocolates you make. But I won’t be buying any more until you address the issue of child slavery in your cocoa sourcing. Please set an example in giving cocoa farmers a fair wage and ensuring just treatment of child workers in your supply chain.”

Update: As noted in the article above, in 2012, Hershey’s committed to fully switching their Bliss line of chocolate to independently certified cocoa by the end of the year and they did it! Then in October 2012 Hershey’s upped their commitment to 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020 – a move to reduce child labor and improve cocoa communities in West Africa. This huge step for Hershey’s shows that they are responsive to consumer pressure. While third party certification will make this move truly transparent, some argue that a Fair Trade certification would do more to prevent the worst abuses than Rainforest Alliance Certified, the certifier the company has chosen to work with. But again, this is a big, big step in the right direction. You can find more information about the work they are doing with on their site.