Slavery: The Bitter Pods of Our Candy Life

Chocolates mean glad tidings to most kids. It is, however, different realities to different people across the world.  A privilege for some, a never-to-be-tasted bar of beauty for others. Many people love to have a bite and it’s often a gift to many children. Sadly, this gift to children in the West and Europe is made through the enslavement of other children in West Africa.

Ivory Coast and Ghana own more than 60% of the world’s total cocoa plantations and provide the world’s biggest cocoa-based companies with raw material for the production of their chocolates, beverage drinks and more. 

In February, international cocoa-based companies Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz were defendants in an American court answering questions to a lawsuit filed by human rights firm, International Rights Advocates (IRA). 

The lawsuit was on behalf of eight former child slaves from Mali who revealed the heavy labour and torture they were made to go through on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast. The child labourers at the time had their average age below 14 and were forced to work on cocoa plantations owned by factories run by some of the world’s biggest companies. 

A BBC documentary aired some years ago had as a subject a boy who worked in one of the factories. When he was asked how he feels each time he sees a person taking chocolates or drinking a cup of cocoa, he said; 

“They are enjoying something that I suffered to make,” They are eating my flesh.”

Products from a $100 billion chocolate candy industry is seen across stores in the world, but the underlying labour that goes into production are never mentioned in many countries, including the African countries the entire process begin from.

Some of these cocoa-based companies have denied wrongdoing and stated that the government of the countries where they source raw materials from should be held responsible. While a few of them get busy grandstanding, others claim to be interested in the conditions of living of workers on those farms. This has however been found to be mostly mere words, and are hardly followed by intentional actions. 

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This has been the problem for about 20 years, and generations continue to slave off on West African Farms to enrich the taste buds of others on the continent, particularly, the western part of the world. Thousands of children are yet to find a good life, are missing out on education and hardly are spoken about by their own governments or even their local community leaders.

Cocoa production in Africa comes with abject poverty, slavery and structural injustice to minors, many of whom never get to live good lives if they are lucky enough to be freed. 

In 2001, Harkin-Engel Protocol, many cocoa-processing companies pledged to phase out child labour from their production channels with countries like Ghana also joining  to aim for a significant reduction. Improvements may have been seen in terms of rewards to farmers with companies like Hershey facing the Ivorian government’s hammer earlier in the year. This was almost instantly settled with better rewards pledged to Ivorian farmers. Many of these farmers who sell to foreign companies in the commodities market use child labourers from neighbouring countries like Mali and Guinea in production. 

Some of these child labourers are exposed without protection, to pesticides and herbicides and other chemicals that pose great risk to human health. They die slowly, never get educated, are hardly paid and are poorly fed, in a means to feed the big accounts of the giant companies in the west who sell back to Africans. 

Their labour feeds our buds, and their bitter lives are to the sweetness of the rest of the world. The leadership and governments of African countries have a lot to do in citizen protection and safeguarding the future of children. 

How African Minors Make Tech Giants?

Do you ever wonder where your phones or laptops come from? In 2019, Google and Apple were named in a lawsuit filed by the IRA for their use of child labourers in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cobalt makes a fifth of the material in a lithium-ion battery which is used in products of major tech companies. It is important because it provides stability for batteries and prevents cathode corrosion which may lead to fire. While it’s really useful, it poses a great danger to human health and the environment. These dangers are some of what kids working on mines in the Congo live with, hence the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit was a result of field research conducted by anti-slavery economist Siddharth Kara. He accused the companies of ‘aiding and abetting’ in the injuries and death of child labourers in the country. Dell, Microsoft and Tesla were also named in the lawsuit as companies that receive supplies from some businessmen who own mines in Congo, where child labourers are paid as little as $2 to work in difficult, life-threatening jobs. More than 70% of the world’s cobalt can be found in Congo but the ruins of labour are suffered by poor local minors, many of whom live in a country where majority earn less than $400 per year.

The exploitation of labour in Africa is huge and widespread, and foreigners are seen taking advantage of this, at the detriment of children who should be in school. 

Child labourer in Congo/ AFP

The Water in Your Designer Shirts 

In July, advocacy group, Water Witness International published a report that looked at the water cost of Africa’s booming textile industry. 

The group titled the report “How fair is fashion’s water footprint?”, after its investigation of the water pollution found in textile factories across five African countries, including Lesotho, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius and Madagascar. The textile factory plants in these countries supply some of the world’s most notable fashion companies including Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Reebok, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Puma, Marks and Spencer, Ralph Lauren etc. 

Where brands source their textiles from/ Water Witness

A brief history of the growth in the textile industry on the continent has so much to do with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, commonly known by its acronym, AGOA. Postulated in the year 2000, the trade act allowed factory plants in Africa, duty-free access to the American fashion market. According to Water Witness, ever since, top American fashion brands have continued to source apparel from factories linked to water contamination in the five countries. 

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In Lesotho, the report claims that clothing industries cause water pollution in the nearby towns of Maseru and Maputsoe and the lack of good waste management by the industry has been a major challenge to the river systems in the country. These rivers are used by locals, and staff of these factories, 80% of whom are women. 

These communities are standing up to fight for their rights as they engage the companies over their health and the damage done to their water systems. 

Liquid chemicals from the textile factories contaminate water in many rivers / Water Witness

“Communities complain about the smell of water and health issues for livestock and people living close by, ” a senior government official from Lesotho said. 

While the damage left on those poor people is a big deal, Lesotho’s textile industry is the second highest employer of labour in the country, just after the government. Staff of some of these companies are beginning to suffer from health challenges including heart and lung problems, yet must feed and treat themselves from the little they make. The communities hosting the factories are also facing water stress and the water behind the designer shirts may be hurtful to millions of people. 

To round up, while Nigeria’s Femi Kuti, his younger brother Seun Kuti and Imade Kuti, Femi’s son performed the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti “Water No Get Enemy” song at the New Afrika Shrine’s Global citizen Live event, the lyrics of the song are indisputable and unbeatable, but the sordid realities of those designer companies’ treatment of water in less developed countries tell another story. 

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