US: Chocolate Firms Fight 'Slave Free' Labels

Publisher Name: 
Philadelphia Inquirer

The chocolate industry and its allies are mounting an intense
lobbying campaign to fight off legislation to require "slave free" labels
for their products.

The proposed legislation is a response to a Knight Ridder Newspapers
investigation that found some boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into
slavery to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast, a West African nation that
supplies 43 percent of U.S. cocoa. The State Department estimates that as
many as 15,000 child slaves work on Ivory Coast's cocoa, cotton and coffee
farms. The House of Representatives passed the labeling initiative,
291-115, in late June, and the measure awaits Senate action.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans hearings on the issue this
fall. "There is a strong consensus in the committee to act," said Chairman
Joseph R. Biden (D., Del.). Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), a longtime foe of
child labor, also may offer a wide-ranging proposal aimed at eliminating
child slavery on cocoa farms.

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents U.S.
chocolate producers, has retained two former Senate majority leaders - Bob
Dole, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat - to lobby lawmakers.
It also enlisted allies such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which
represents companies such as Kraft and General Mills. The business
coalition is focusing on lawmakers who serve on powerful spending
committees and those with chocolate and food companies in their home
districts and states.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D., N.Y.), author of the House proposal, said: "I am
disappointed in the industry because I would have thought they would have
some sort of social conscience. Instead, they are pouring God only knows
how much money to continue their profits on the backs of children, and I
think they should be ashamed of themselves."

Hiring high-powered lobbyists such as Mitchell and Dole can make a
difference, lawmakers say.

"There is no question that both Senators Dole and Mitchell have access to
their colleagues," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R., Idaho). "Access doesn't
mean influence, but that does mean they can focus the attention on any
given issue."

Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, and Mitchell did not
respond yesterday to requests for interviews.

After initially denying that child slavery occurred on African cocoa farms,
industry officials say they are doing their best to find out how widespread
the problem is and how to respond. They say that there is no instant
solution and that the labeling initiative would only complicate their
efforts.

A "slave free" label "would hurt the people it is intended to help" because
it could lead to a boycott of Ivorian cocoa, said Susan Smith, a
spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.

Cocoa is harvested by many small family farmers in Ivory Coast who do not
use child slaves, as well as some farms that do. In the
chocolate-production process stretching from Ivorian farms to U.S.
manufacturers, beans harvested by paid workers are mixed with beans picked
by slaves, making it impossible to determine what is slave-tainted
chocolate and what is not.

Industry representatives emphasize their cooperation with the U.S. Agency
for International Development, which is coordinating a survey of 2,000
farms in Ivory Coast to determine the extent of slavery. The survey
initially was part of a project between the chocolate industry and USAID to
teach West African cocoa farmers environmental and economic sustainability.
It recently has been altered, with help from the International Labor
Organization's office on child labor, to address working conditions on the
farms. The survey is expected to take six months.

Meantime, the industry is preparing "action plans" that are intended to
help end child slavery in West Africa. The Chocolate Manufacturers
Association also has asked nonprofit human-rights groups, such as
Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves, to help develop their
programs.

"We don't need legislation to deal with the problem. We are already
acting," Smith said.

"Oh, I've heard it all before," Harkin said of the industry's protestations.

Unless the industry demonstrates a commitment to eradicate child slavery in
the cocoa sector worldwide, Harkin says, he might propose legislation that
could cut off agriculture subsidies to the cocoa industry and prohibit the
government from buying any cocoa products. The Chocolate Manufacturers
Association is working with him to head off any legislation.

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 116 Human Rights