Slavery in the Chocolate Industry


The forced labour of children in the Ivorian cocoa farms is at a distance from the glamourised candy producers such as Mars and Nestlé, and a universe away from the day-to-day consumers of chocolate. That such a quixotic market shares a commonality with the more exposed diamond market, for example, whose implication in the sale and involvement of guns in tribal cleansing has long been documented, drives home the reminder that our modern prosperity, usually reached and used with the best of consumer intentions, if not also the corporate, and even our harmless, insignificant indulgences sometimes owe themselves to an extremely complex source environment. In this paper we dissect the impasse of a much-loved industry’s unpleasant, inadvertent underside in an objective and comprehensive method, rigorously applying the ancient, contemporary, and modern theories of ethics in our analysis, and drawing on practical precedents and goings-on in the business world to reinforce abstraction with cases and results.


Slavery is not an ancient artifact in our time, but a concealed certainty. Only 81 of the world’s near 200 countries are signatories of United Nations legislation to actively fight against slavery (51) in the twenty-first century.

Velasquez values the domestic American chocolate market at $13 billion, a figure made possible by trading in more than half a million tons of chocolate’s source crop (cocoa beans) in the year 2000 alone (52). Most of this cocoa is harvested in West Africa, the regional capital of the world for the produce (52).

The scale of the forced labour is in the region of 200,000 adolescents and preadolescents dispersed among a million agricultural estates of cocoa (51, 52). Those million plantations belong to the single two countries where the situation is most intensified (the Republic of Ghana and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire) which together are responsible for nearly 50 percent of global annual chocolate production (52, 51). It is not only slavery but the slave trade itself that continues to exist in this region; the labour is smuggled in from adjacent West African states, an operation facilitated by poorly secured state lines and corruption among border police and customs officers alike (51).

Governmental commissions (e.g. the United States Department of State), the international community (United Nations Children’s Fund, International Labour Organisation) and even free media segments (Knight Ridder) gave official accounts of the abject and inhumane situation of the child labourers. Much as was the practice in medieval West Africa they are captives or abductees of mercenary dealers (children being the easiest targets) who for payment supply them to plantation landlords. From then on, the landlords’ labour offers profit without expense; they treat their grim cargo essentially as beasts of burden, working them with no regard for their health or lives, giving them the bare minimum  of food and shelter – and refusing them even that if they are uncooperative – and shutting them in like cattle when a day’s work is done. The fact that the children are kept in isolation, and in any case are foreigners ethnically and linguistically, that their families are helpless or even complicit in their sale, and finally the fact that the most brutal possible abuse of recaptured escapees is used as a deterrent (51) all ensure that the vast majority are never heard from again, alive or dead, by the outside world.

Despite penetration into the atrocities by official lines, the horrific reality was not driven home to the public until the turn of the millennium when a television programme released insider footage of what life was like in the Ivorian cocoa plantations (51). The footage ran on national channels in several Western countries including the United States and ignited outrage at the world’s leading chocolate-product corporations – all implicated in the storm of controversy (51, 52).

The first, the systemic ethical issues raised by this situation are that slavery and indentured servitude have long been held ubiquitously to be an evil. This is, however, a perception; in a theoretical analysis it is important to make no assumptions and a wealth of definitions. We will discuss the pragmatism of this perception.

We must, of course, bear in mind the 400-year-old theoretical and practical foundations of our continental economy – a minimum of government interference in commerce, the benefit of competition in lowering prices and raising quality for the consumer, and what Velasquez calls the pursuit of profit (37). Any business’s survival must steer toward cost cutting and breakeven or net revenue. Smith’s theory of free markets and utilitarianism (135-138) reminds us that this realpolitik approach to business is what drives our individual welfare, which we want (137). Social Darwinism goes further to associate capitalism with the summative advancement of society (141) though this may not equate to its growing moral hygiene (142). While the United States is an advanced society that will do relatively well even if it places moral concerns as an obstruction to trading with the West African cocoa farmers, Ricardo’s theory prompts us that trade is still in the American interest (142). Furthermore, many may argue that the minimum of a business is legality and not immorality (37). While the United States outlaws human trafficking as well as Côte d’Ivoire (51) the systemic and human factors that mean the law is often ignored in the latter (51) also make it difficult to establish a precise chain of guilt from the West African cocoa farmer to the American retailer. Finally, Côte d’Ivoire’s inconsistency between banning slavery at home and refusing to join in the internationalist antislavery programme (51) suggest that its domestic antislavery law may only exist for formality’s sake.

Karl Marx witnessed working conditions similar to those of the child labourers

‘ … exploitative working hours, pulmonary diseases and premature deaths caused by unsanitary factory conditions, 7-year-olds working 12 to 15 hours a day; 30 seamstresses working 30 hours without a break in a room made for 10 people’. (145)

He had surmised that capitalism, which in a purist definition is not altruistic in intent (though arguably positive in results) would indefinitely narrow the concentration of wealth, widen the gap between the privileged few and the toiling many, and worsen the lot of the labourers he saw, for an indefinite period if not stopped (146). Yet while capitalism has since remained firmly grounded in the Western world, Smith’s invisible hand analogy (136) has also led to a gradually accumulated spreading-out of the national wealth, so that per capita incomes and standards of living are exponentially higher and we now see the conditions he described much more commonly in former strongholds of Communism than in the Western world. Thus it may be suggested that the invisible hand, left to its own devices, will improve the social as well as the market situation in time better than human measures can (though not discussed by Velasquez, we may remember that since Congress outlawed the sale of human organs, the number of patients who die because of transplant unavailability has increased every year).

Having so far spoken of the American side of our equation, we may turn our application to the other side of the Atlantic. Velasquez states that the ongoing forced labour (we can say at least as regards the landlords and not the mercenary dealers) is not purely due to wanton human nature, and that the landlords themselves endure abject poverty. They are not corporate entities, but strictly individuals; the plantations generally belong to private families living in dilapidated pastoral provinces of harsh terrain and little or no connectivity to the rest of the country (52). These people we can reason are not wealthy. To make matters worse, they saw their meagre earnings plunge almost a quarter in the four year period before the televised documentary (51). The cocoa farmers presumably had two choices, to increase profits or cut costs. How they could increase profits is a difficult question, as their profits dwindled in the first place due to overseas market complexities (51). Easier to understand was their remnant option of cost cutting; presumably by reducing their labour cost from little to nothing, and also to recruit more hands at no cost to increase their harvests, a very labour-intensive process (51). Smith tells us that humans are motivated primarily by their self-interest (136) while his critics argue that humans can also be motivated primarily by compassion (139) but in the middle is the model where our economic actor is faced with his own extinction, an emergency in which in accordance with survival of the fittest (141) he will probably protect his existence at all costs, certainly to the detriment of others like the child labourers.

This is the groundwork of our wandering off into the theory of ethical relativism. The slavery we are most familiar with was rooted in a wholly utilitarian reasoning. By mass-producing a luxurious cash crop in demand (cotton) through the exploitation of millions of labourers costing nothing throughout their lifetimes beyond their initial purchase, maximum utility (63) was achieved. However, in the slave society of the Old South the institution existed to provide want-type utility while among the West African cocoa farmers it is more than need-based; it is a matter of the economics of survival (66).

Velasquez writes that one of the customs in which not all cultures hold a ubiquitous position in favour or in opposition is slavery (19). Furthermore, divergences in practices the world over are often traceable to the same moral belief applied to different environments, often one harsher than the other (20-21). The application of the belief differs widely, as required by the environment. Both American corporate executives and West African cocoa farmers probably believe in the importance of protecting profit and reducing labour costs. The Americans would not accept the latter to the extent of practicing slavery, but both Americans and West African farmers probably also agree on the importance of earning enough money to protect a bare minimum of existence, which is precisely what the cocoa farmers are doing – would the American executive take the same measures as the West African cocoa farmer if his life depended on it? It is imaginably probably so. Velasquez tests the theory of relativism in cases in which it fails, such as the Nazi genocide of Jewish people (21) but the transgressions of the farmers are not committed so much to further their interests and hurt others but rather to keep themselves alive over others. However, Velasquez also pinpoints an aspect of the theory of relativism which prevents it from producing perfect logical results in all cases – if we are relativists, then whatsoever is espoused by the greater part of a people in the land they inhabit must be ethically acceptable in that land (22), making much more sinister practices than forced labour to survive, also ethically acceptable. It is an automatic answer.

In summary for the theory of relativism, we find that the Ivorian cultural view of slavery differs from the American (19, 51) but this is flawed because of relativism’s automatic agreement with any view of a population majority (22) and so if we move from a question of utilitarian wants to one of utilitarian needs (66) we find that the conscience of the cocoa farmers is clearer.

Returning to the theory of utilitarianism, we may also find that the provisions it makes for the moral rights of individuals (78) do not apply fittingly in our case; the slavery in West Africa is utilitarian-based (even if more the sense of survivalism than utility) but the moral rights of the child labourers do not serve to maximise utility (78). In fact, it is the minimisation of their moral rights that maximises the utility of the cocoa farmers.

Venturing into Immanuel Kant’s definition of relativism and the moral rectitude of actions:

‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. (78)

However, despite its name, the universal law is not applied generally to every situation, but rather varies with each situation (78-79). It could be called a universal situational law, wherein the action that the individual chooses in his situation is what he believes (and would accept for) anyone else to replicate providing that the latter person is in an identical situation at the time of his action (79). Applying Kant’s first categorical imperative to the cocoa farmers, it is surmisable that they would also will for anyone whose existence was under threat to resort to the same measures as they. However, the imperative does not succeed in both of its decisive factors, i.e. an impoverished cocoa farmer may say that slavery is universalisable but not reversible (p. 79), i.e. anyone in the situation of the cocoa farmer would take the farmer’s measures, but would not necessarily accept it upon himself. Furthermore, our analysis of the moral rectitude of the cocoa farmer’s actions fails under Kant’s second categorical imperative, which holds that one must benefit from others only in relationships among valued equals (p. 80).

We cannot say that the slavery discussed in the case is absolutely wrong no matter what, because in the case of the Ivorian farmers it is a mandatory option (52). In our society slavery existed to maximise utility of wants, but in West Africa it is a means of survival (of some over others). The views of Smith and Darwin tell us that a person bears his self-interest primarily in mind (more so when he must survive) and that if he is to survive, he will do anything to ensure his survival (survival of the fittest). This is more excusable than the redundant accumulation of wealth.

Velasquez’s trilogy of the factors that determine ethical liability are first if an individual initiated the event or events that produced a grievance – whether the individual initiated this intentionally or whether the individual’s inaction initiated it, and whether the individual’s cause of or contribution to the grievance was in full or in part (41-42). The next two factors are knowledge that the grievance would happen as a result of the committed action or omitted action, and the completely voluntary nature of the individual’s commission or omission (42). Velasquez writes that the companies at the top of the American chocolate-product market were aware of the nature of the cocoa labour long prior to the independent media casting it under the spotlight (52). However, as the Americans are not the direct inflictors of the grievance in our case, their implication is a greyer area than we would think; Velasquez illustrates a similar case of forced labour in Southeast Asia being the source of much of Nike, Inc.’s stock (43) but limits its ethical guilt to the extent of its power (or lack of power) over the source agents in Southeast Asia. No doubt the closer one is in the hierarchy of proximities to the grievance, the clearer their chain of guilt. If the corporations knew of the slave labour, which they did, they bear the second factor of ethical liability – however, Velasquez writes that ignorance is part information and part moral standard (43) and the corporations might have lacked, or rationalised this moral standard relativistically. Velasquez further tells us

‘ … a person cannot be held responsible for something over he or she has no control’. (44)

However, it is clear that the chocolate-product companies adopted measures after the footage of the slave labourers was aired, to mitigate the grievance – (agronomics instruction for the landlords, and a tracing process to provide official recognition of the labour source of certain chocolate-product stocks as a guarantor of noninvolvement in the grievance (52)) – and that such measures were not pursued in the years when the labour was more subtle and hidden. Therefore the corporations did have some extent of control over the grievance, and share a corresponding extent of the guilt – not a complete extent, however, as they could not avert the grievance, only mitigate it by lobbying with or pressuring the landlords who need the corporate buyers for their livelihood.

The final condition for determining ethical liability in Velasquez’s model is the voluntary nature of the first condition in an absence of mental or physical impairment. This may cause us to wonder. The corporations hold a moral obligation not only to the child labourers, but arguably a heavier obligation to the livelihoods of their employees, to whom they have a direct association, unlike their association with the former. If most of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, and the company involved produces chocolate products, the company mandatorily must associate with West African farmers and the primary driver of labour conditions in the farms will be the farmers and not the companies. Slave labour is prevalent across West Africa (52). Velasquez summarised the challenges faced by the American corporations in their efforts to quell the slave trade: the vast number, geographical distribution and inhospitable inaccessible locations of the small, proprietary cocoa farms, as well as the fact that the farmers protect their business by rendering it impossible for any reasonable man to discern between the harvests of forced labourers and the harvests of the equitably employed (52). The American corporations therefore face an exacting project of Herculean proportions if they wish to mitigate the slave trade, one that can only take a heavy toll on the expenses of their operations, endangering their competitiveness and the livelihoods of their employees. So while the American chocolate corporations did not opt out of any implication in the slave trade (therefore satisfying the voluntary factor), they did not have the choice of avoiding business with the West African farmers, who are the primary determiners of the conditions of the children however much Western oversight there will be, and the action of stopping the slave trade was so large-scale and stymied that we must wonder if it amounts to something close to involuntariness.

We see heavy involvement of Velasquez’s mitigating factors:

  • ‘Circumstances that minimize but do not completely remove a person’s involvement in an act’
  • ‘circumstances that leave a person uncertain but not altogether unsure about what he or she is doing’
  • ‘Circumstances that make it difficult but not impossible for the person to stop doing it’ (45)

The American corporations can claim all three mitigating factors; they are far removed from the source labour in terms of physical distance, intermediation and relationship hierarchy; the cocoa farmers are deceitful about the use of slave labour; and fighting slave labour within the source market is extremely difficult, even contributive to the company’s falling behind its fierce competition.

The cocoa farmers may claim the third mitigating factor, more so than the corporations; discontinuing their use of slave labour may mean their deaths.

Of all parties involved in the grievance of child slavery (whatever their proximity to the source market) we feel that the mercenary dealers hold the greatest moral blame, because they apply utility in a way to the building of personal wealth by the most direct and most proximate involvement in the grievance. They can claim no mitigating factors.


In conclusion, we feel that the theories of utility and ethical relativism provide the fairest explanation for the forced child labour in the West African cocoa plantations. We find that the child labourers are pawns of a complex system of needs – the need of the cocoa farmer to survive and the need of the American chocolate-product corporation to continue to exist in light of (a) a limited choice of source market, (b) very limited controllability of the cocoa farmer and (c) the great difficulty of no longer being implicated in the slave trade by commission or omission (going out of business) and the limited success of vast efforts to quell the slave trade. We find that, as most of the parties in the grievance are not wanton but behave out of necessity, this case is best resolved through careful and mutually beneficial cooperation between the American corporations and the cocoa farmers to reach an optimal solution where (a) the cocoa farmer learns how and is given the means to make a much more effective use of his land for greater harvests, i.e. agronomics, mechanisation, fertilisers, labour force reduction (American agriculture is more productive than ever before, with less labour than ever before) and (b) the American corporation suffers no loss of business and deals no harm to its employees. This cooperation can help both well-meaning parties and obliterate the practical necessity of the unintentional grievance, child slavery.

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