This Christmas we should avoid chocolate tainted with child labour. Photo: AFP

The dark truth about chocolate production

Brooke Zheng says the legions of chocolate consumers should exert pressure on producers to stop the exploitation of child farm workers

At this time of year especially, it's worth stopping to consider how your gift of chocolate is made. For all the pleasure the eating of this food brings, its production often means a life of misery for the children in West Africa who harvest the cocoa beans - an essential ingredient - in hazardous conditions.

While cocoa is consumed mainly by people in developed countries, some 70 per cent of it is produced in Africa. And the world wants more: recently, the world's biggest chocolate companies warned of a chocolate deficit by 2020.

With increasing demand for chocolate, more children will be pushed into the labour force on cocoa farms. According to a 2011 report, some 1.8 million children, aged from five to 17, were working on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Many are forced to work long hours, applying chemicals without protective equipment. Their rights to education are also largely denied; around 40 per cent of the working children on Ivorian cocoa farms were not enrolled in school.

Poverty is the underlying cause. More than 90 per cent of the world's cocoa is grown by small farms at the bottom of the supply chain. Lacking bargaining power, they receive on average less than 7 per cent of the price of the chocolate containing their cocoa. Poverty drives them to use their own children's free labour to increase production and reduce costs, or to buy child workers from traffickers.

Contract labourers on cocoa farms similarly rely on child labour. Being poor, their children are put to work to increase the family income, ensuring the family is caught in a cycle of poverty.

As consumers, we can help; for starters, by supporting fair trade chocolate. To obtain a fair trade certificate, producers have to adopt a set of standards, such as minimum price and non-child labour.

Paying a minimum price ensures farmers get fair payment for their cocoa. This prevents them from being exploited by multinational corporations that push the price of cocoa to a very low level. Moreover, producers are regularly audited to ensure that no child labour is used in the production process.

It has been some 20 years since the first fair trade chocolate bar was introduced. However, today, only a fraction of cocoa is certified as complying with fair trade standards.

In any convenience store in Hong Kong, there are usually plenty of chocolate products on the shelves, including those from companies including Cadbury, Mars, Nestle and Hershey's. Though many of these companies have joined fair trade programmes, none of the chocolates on display were fair trade certified. It is shocking that fair trade chocolate is not more easily found in a global trading hub like Hong Kong.

It's essential to get the big multinational chocolate manufacturers on board, to ensure they take corporate social responsibility seriously and take real action to help stop child labour on cocoa farms.

More importantly, we, as consumers, can be the driving force for suppliers and manufacturers to stop using cocoa beans harvested by children. We can celebrate this Christmas by purchasing fair trade chocolate and avoiding products tainted by child labour.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The dark truth