Bitter Chocolate - The Hands That Pick

Welcome to Part 2 of an ongoing series on the dark side of chocolate. No worries if you missed the introduction, you can find that here. This time the spotlight is on the hands that pick cocoa (or ‘cacao’). Specifically, the hands of children.

Unlike large-scale plantations run by rich landowners (common in industrialised agribusiness), the majority of the world’s cocoa is still produced on small-scale family farms. That changes things. Cocoa farmers are being paid less and less and many find themselves amongst those living below the poverty line (on less than $2USD a day). What that means is that it has become commonplace to rely on child labour to increase the family revenue and keep prices competitive. But what exactly is child labour? In many cultures around the world it’s seen as normal for a child to help with the family farm; learning skills or a particular trade. This is called ‘child work’ and is different from ‘child labour’, which is defined by depriving a child of education, dignity and exposing them to harmful work environments.


Child labour and child trafficking are both widespread within the cocoa industry. In 2011 it was estimated that 1.8 million children were working in the cocoa sector in Ghana and the Ivory Coast (the two countries producing 70% of the world’s cocoa). The US State Department estimates that at least 10-12000 children working in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast are victims of human trafficking and enslavement. The work itself is hazardous, including climbing cacao trees with machetes (to cut off the pods) and carrying heavy loads. Children as young as 5 have been found working on farms. Due to the hidden and illegal nature of child trafficking, quantifying the scope of the problem is hard, but the truth is that you and I have probably eaten chocolate picked by the hands of a child who has never eaten it themselves.

So what now? The good news is that there are lots of great businesses out there choosing to be transparent about their cocoa production. Next time you pick up a bar of chocolate, have a look at the packaging for certification labels (icons approving that the business has reached certain regulated standards). Are there any? Is there any information about where the cocoa was grown? If not, be suspicious. Otherwise, our ignorance is bliss for those benefitting from forced child labour.

Bethan Uitterdijk