WITH an aching back, and hunger pangs ripping through his stomach, 15-year-old Abou Traore uses a heavy machete to hack through the dense brush of a cocoa plantation.
The teenager, who has been working long hours on the farm since the age of ten, is one of 16,000 children forced into child labour in West Africa – so that Brits can enjoy their favourite chocolate bars.
Originally from the impoverished nation of Burkina Faso, Abou was bussed over the border to the cocoa-rich Ivory Coast by human traffickers, leaving his home and parents behind.
“I came here to go to school,” Abou told the Washington Post. “I haven’t been to school for five years now.”
But chocolate is not the only product on our supermarket shelves that rely on slave labour and child exploitation, with almost 25million people trapped in forced labour worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Around 40 per cent of big businesses in the UK don’t comply with the UK Modern Slavery Act, which obliges chains to tackle slave labour in their supply chains.
In recent years all the major supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, have signed up to the Ethical Trade Initiative, which aims to clean up the supply chain of products on the shelves, but our weekly shops remain an ethical minefield.
Chloe Cranston, from Anti-Slavery International, said: “Sadly, many of the goods we see on our supermarket shelves will have been made by people in forced labour. That has to stop – and businesses have a big part to play.
"We need to see supermarkets put workers front and centre, from farm workers to those on the shop floor. That includes making sure all workers throughout supply chains are paid the living wage."
“We need Boris Johnson to get involved too, by bringing in new laws that force businesses to prevent human rights abuses in their supply chains. British consumers deserve to know that they’re not contributing to modern slavery just by doing their weekly shopping.”
To mark anti-slavery month, we look at the potential human rights abuses behind your everyday food buys.
Over two decades ago, the biggest global chocolate companies, including Mars, Nestle and Cadbury, signed up to an agreement to stamp out child labour on the farms that supply their cocoa.
But in October a report by the independent research institution, NORC, at the University of Chicago, found that child labour had INCREASED since then, with more than two-fifths (43 per cent) of all children aged between five and 17 in the cocoa-growing regions of Ghana and the Ivory Coast – the world’s largest producers – taking on work that was dangerous or for which they were too young.
Children as young as six, are forced to spray dangerous pesticides, clear forests using sharp machetes, and carry sacks of cocoa weighing 100lbs or more.
Victims who attempted to sue the chocolate companies, in the US Supreme Court, claim that they were forced to work up to 14 hours a day, fed on meagre scraps of food and were severely beaten or tortured if they tried to escape.
Many of the children are kidnapped and trafficked from neighbouring countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, and sold to cocoa farmers for around £210.
Others are controlled by gang leaders or “big bosses” who are paid around £6 a week per child and typically pass on less than half.
The 2019 Washington Post investigation into Mars, the maker of M&M and Milky Ways, found that the company could trace the origin of just 24 per cent of its cocoa, while Nestlé, whose products include Yorkie and Aero, could trace just 49 per cent of its global cocoa supply.
Campaign group Freedom United recently called on the top ten confectionery companies – who produce familiar brands including M&M’s, KitKat, Mars, Cadbury and Lindt – to step up efforts to monitor their supply chain and end child labour.
The chocolate companies’ response
A Mars Wrigley spokesperson said: “We are clear that any exploitation in the cocoa supply chain is totally unacceptable, which is why we are putting cocoa farmers and their communities first with a $1 billion investment in our cocoa supply chain that will help protect children, preserve forests and improve farmer income.
"We’ve made substantial progress to date, including putting in place robust processes to identify instances of child labour, and have meaningfully improved the lives of thousands of people. There is more work to do, though, and we are focused on our cocoa being 100% responsibly sourced and traceable by 2025.”
Cadbury's parent company, Mondelēz International commented: "At Mondelēz International, we are concerned by the sector’s slow progress towards ending child labour in the West African cocoa supply chain, as outlined in the NORC report. We believe that children’s work is education and play, and that no amount of child labour in the cocoa supply chain should be acceptable.
"Mondelēz International addresses child labour and other challenges in the cocoa supply chain through our $400 million sustainability program Cocoa Life. In Cocoa Life communities our interventions, outlined in our child labour strategy, are having a positive effect on children’s wellbeing and reducing child labour. But we know that as a sector, we should keep working to go further.
"That's why we are accelerating the roll out of our Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation Systems (CLMRS) across all Cocoa Life communities in West Africa by 2025. We are also driving engagement with the sector’s key stakeholders, including the governments of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, to channel public-private investments towards addressing the root causes of child labour systemically. One example is the ground-breaking CLEF initiative to improve quality education for all children in the Ivorian cocoa sector."
Nuts and Nutella
Nutella is one of the top-selling spreads in the UK, with over 11 million jars sold each year.
But behind the sweet, gooey favourite is an army of Syrian and Kurdish families, who spend 12 hours a day in backbreaking work on hazelnut farms in Turkey.
Ferrero – who make the spread – buys a third of the country’s hazelnut harvest every year for both Nutella and other brands, including Ferrero Rocher.
Paid less than the minimum wage, many are forced to bring their children to work in order to make enough money to live.
These children work long hours in hazardous conditions, and often miss out on school, according to antislavery.org.
Farmers have accused the company of not paying a fair price for the nuts, leading to low wages for workers – with a family of four earning just £6.50 a week and paying 10 percent to labour agents.
According to a recent report, the company has achieved only 39 per cent traceability.
Ferrero’s anti-slavery policy
A Ferrero spokesperson: “We do not tolerate child labour and we are determined to prevent and eliminate this issue across our supply chains.
“With hazelnuts, the complexity of the sector means it cannot be transformed by one single actor and cooperation is essential. We work with the International Labour Organisation and other relevant organisations to drive meaningful change.
"In partnership with Earthworm Foundation, we recently announced the Ferrero Hazelnut Charter. We will be publishing annual action plans and providing updates on progress made as we implement our Charter.
“We source 100% sustainable cocoa, and our cocoa beans are 100% traceable to farms so we can identify and address issues in a very targeted manner. We support our farmers with our cocoa sustainability program to improve livelihoods and protect children and communities and work with Save the Children and other organisations to drive meaningful change."
We’re a nation of coffee lovers and whether your preferred caffeine hit is of the instant or coffee shop variety, many top brands – including Nestle and Starbucks – have been linked to slave labour in recent investigations.
A report on child labour and forced labour, published by the Bureau of International Labour Affairs in 2018, found human rights abuses in 17 coffee-growing countries across Africa, South America and Asia.
Coffee producers typically receive between 7 per cent and 10 per cent of the retail price with even the highest paid workers receiving less than 2 per cent.
In Brazil, the world’s largest producer with a third of the market, labourers are often trafficked to work for little or no pay and held in debt bondage.
Many are forced to sleep on rubbish heaps, or in substandard accommodation without mattresses or drinking water, with up to 17 people crammed into a small shack.
They face long hours, poor safety precautions and constant exposure to fierce sunshine and deadly pesticides.
Many parents take children out of school to help on the plantations and the most recent household survey, in 2015, found that 4,993 children – some as young as seven – worked on coffee plantations.
Last year, a team from Channel 4 filmed children as young as eight, in Guatemala, working eight hours a day, six days a week through the heat of the day – plagued by insects bites, risking deadly snake bites and carrying sacks of up to 100lbs for as little as 31p an hour.
A recent Thomson Reuters investigation found coffee produced by forced labour was stamped 'slavery-free' and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso.
In 2016, Nestlé admitted they bought coffee from two plantations with known forced labour and said they cannot “fully guarantee that it has completely removed forced labour practices or human rights abuses” from their supply chain.
Reacting to the Dispatches programme, Starbucks also said it has a “zero tolerance for child labour anywhere in our supply chain”.
They added that they no longer bought coffee from the identified farms and said the were only using plantations that followed C.A.F.E. Practices, the company's "ethical sourcing program developed in partnership with Conservation International" to ensure social, environmental and economic standards, "including zero tolerance for child labour.”
A spokesperson from Nestle said: "These practices are simply unacceptable and go against everything we stand for.
"We aim to prevent them wherever they occur and are working hard to drive real change in and around our supply chain. Where there are claims that our high standards are not met, we act immediately."
They also pointed out that in the UK, "100 per cent of the cocoa we use for our confectionery products is traceable and responsibly sourced. Likewise, 100 per cent of the palm oil we use in the UK is RSPO certified and 94 per cent of green coffee used in our UK products is responsibly sourced and certified."
The company has spent £15million on 'preventative measures' in the Ivory Coast which includes support to almost 90,000 young people, the building or refurbishment of 50 schools.
They also run an extensive Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System, but add: "We know there is still a long way to go. We will continue to expand the reach of our CLMRS to cover all our Nestlé Cocoa Plan sourcing in West Africa by 2025. "
The elimination of child labour is also a key component in the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program, established in 2003, and all farms covered by the scheme are inspected yearly.
"We work with Rainforest Alliance, 4C Services, Fairtrade International and the Fair Labor Association to reinforce good working practices and fair treatment of workers, including education on the risks of child labour," added the spokesperson.
"In 2019, our 400 agronomists made over 170,000 farm visits across the world, including 60,000 detailed farm sustainability assessments."
Hailed as a superfood, the popularity of avocados has gone through the roof in recent years.
But the trendy fruit has an unpalatable background of violence, slavery and abuse.
In Mexico – where the market in “green gold” is worth £1.75 – the farms are often owned by drug cartels and have sparked fierce turf wars.
In December 2019, 19 gang members were slaughtered, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Uruapan – by a rival gang bidding for their share of the market.
Campaigners in other South American countries have found low-paid, often migrant workers toiling long hours among polluted water courses and pesticides, fingernails rotting from dipping saplings into chemicals.
Tesco halted the sale of avocados from a Kenyan farm in October, after 79 workers sued Kent-based company Camellia PLC over human rights abuses.
The alleged abuse – carried out by security guards at the plantation – include rape, murder, attacks and false imprisonment at the Kenyan facility.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We have been working closely with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), alongside other ETI members, to investigate this issue and ensure measures have been taken to protect workers.
“However, in light of additional allegations published, we have suspended all supply whilst we urgently investigate.”
Sainsburys and Lidl also suspended sales of fruits sourced from the Kenyan plantation.
Exports of beef from Brazil can be found in many British supermarkets, but the cattle farms they come from have been linked to slavery and mass deforestation.
An investigation by the Guardian and Repórter Brasil show that JBS, who supplied major supermarkets including Morrisons and Lidl, exported £2million of beef from a farm which was under investigation for using workers as modern-day slaves.
In a series of raids in June 2016, federal police officers discovered men forced to live in degrading conditions, with no shelter and no toilets or drinking water.
Prosecutors believe the workers were in debt bondage, with payments for food and protective equipment illegally deducted from their wages.
The farm owner, Antônio Filho, had previously been fined £29m for deforesting an area of rainforest the size of central London.
Illegal land seizures, where farmers burn areas of forest for cattle rearing, is often linked to threats and violence against indigenous people.
According to one estimate, there were seven killings, seven attempted murders and 27 death threats against Indigenous people in Brazil’s Amazon region in 2019.
Waitrose removed its own brand corned beef over the row. Morrisons have also stopped buying meat products from JBS.
Bananas are a British staple and we are the highest consumer of the fruit in Europe, munching our way through 1.2billion kg a year.
But workers on the plantations – who toil in harsh sun for up to 14 hours a day – earn around 5 per cent of the retail price with shops raking in up to 43 per cent.
Child labour is rife on banana farms in Equador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines with children as young as five working with toxic chemicals.
In Ecuador, a 2002 study by Humans Rights Watch found that “In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed."
Roughly 90 per cent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides, that cause nausea and dizziness, were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead”.
Banana producers Chiquita pleaded guilty, in 2007, to making large payments to Colombian paramilitary group AUC and were fined £18m. It was also revealed they allowed the group to use their loading bays to import AK-47s.
As a result, family members of thousands of Colombians who were murdered or disappeared launched a lawsuit against Chiquita.
With most supermarkets, including Tesco and Morrisons, importing their own bananas, Chiquita has ceased to be a major player in the UK.
Fyffes, the UK’s biggest importer, recently committed to stamp out child labour in its supply chain: “Because of the severe negative impact of child labour on children, we do not tolerate the use of child or forced labour, nor exploitation of children in any of our own operations and in our agricultural supply chains.”
The fishing industry in Thailand – worth £4.4billion in exports – employs 800,000 and supplies much of the meat for tinned tuna around the world.
But, despite tougher restrictions introduced in 2015, a recent investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation found human rights abuses were rife among migrant workers on the boats.
Incredibly, 59 per cent of those interviewed had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker, 68 per cent of had been sexually or physically abused and 44 per cent said they were starved.
Tun Thet Soe, an escaped victim of trafficking told them: “They would torture and murder the fishers then throw them into the sea.
“They abused the crew in many ways – beating, hitting and killing out on the ocean. I witnessed murder with my own eyes.”
Another, Mao Thant Kyaw, said that he was kept in slavery by a debt to his traffickers.
“Whenever I came back to port they told me I owed them 20,000 or 30,000 baht [£400 to £600].
“I couldn't ask why, they would beat me – any one of them would've killed me, so I didn't ask. I've seen beatings and killings before so I didn't dare ask.”
In 2019, the UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) revealed that 80 percent of the world’s biggest canned tuna brands do not know who caught their fish.
Among the big suppliers who did trace to source were Thai Union, who own tuna giant John West.
Palm oil is found in around half the goods on our supermarket shelves – from crisps to margarine, breakfast cereal and tinned goods, plus soaps, toothpaste and shampoos.
But a 2016 report by Amnesty International, found that brands like Magnum, Colgate toothpaste, Dove cosmetics, Knorr soup, Pantene shampoo, Ariel, and Pot Noodle were turning “a blind eye” to child exploitation.
On Indonesian plantations owned by US company Wilmar, children as young as eight were found to be working without safety equipment, exposed to toxic pesticides, carrying heavy sacks of palm fruit weighing up to 25kg, and many have dropped out of school.
A 14-year-old boy, who left school at 12 to help his father, said his younger siblings, aged 10 and 12, also helped.
“I have helped my father every day for about two years,” he said.
“I left school to help my father because he couldn’t do the work anymore. He was sick…I regret leaving school. I would have liked to have gone to school to become smarter. I would like to become a teacher.”
The work is physically demanding, with one 10-year-old telling the charity: “I carry the sack with the loose fruit by myself but can only carry it half full. It is difficult to carry it, it is heavy. I do it in the rain as well but it is difficult…My hands hurt and my body aches.”
Female workers were also exploited, made to work overtime for nothing and threatened with having pay deducted if they did not complete their quota of work.
“It is difficult work because the target is horrifying…My feet hurt, my hands hurt and my back hurts after doing the work,” said one.
Sadly, the picture is repeated in Malaysia, another huge producer of the valuable crop.
How to shop responsibly
Shopping responsibly requires research, knowing which companies might be worse performers on human rights, or which products might be at high risk of forced labour.
Even then, shoppers should be aware that it is hard to guarantee slavery-free goods, which is why very few companies make this claim.
Do your research
Check if the company is a Living Wage Employer. Paying a proper wage to cover living costs is a key foundation to preventing exploitation
Use labels to guide your shopping like Fairtrade and Ethical Consumer Org’s Best Buy logo. These logos don’t guarantee that a product is slavery-free but these companies may pay more attention to possible exploitation in their supply chains.
Check if the company has a modern slavery statement, and whether this looks detailed. This should be hyperlinked on all UK companies’ homepages. The government is set to launch a database with a search function for statements in the near future.
Check out the Good Shopping Guide
See what campaigners are saying:
UK organisation Labour behind the Label has loads of information on the UK fashion industry, with petitions for the public to support to call for brands to act more responsibly.
A coalition of organisations are pushing for a new law in the EU that would hold businesses accountable for abuses in their supply chains
Nick Kightley, of the Ethical Trade Initiative, called on businesses to take action.
“There are a number of food supply chains where child labour is still widespread, and well documented. Chocolate, coffee, avocados, palm oil, nuts and bananas are known to be particularly high risk.”
"ETI members, as responsible businesses, commit to active human rights due diligence, which means actively looking for labour rights abuses in their supply chains and acting quickly to remediate abuses once they are discovered.
"But there are tiers of action required here: companies to do what they can, industry bodies to take collective action and states to responsibly act to protect people. Only when all three tiers are collaborating together – leaving no gaps such as migrant workers and child labour – will we see real change.
"It is the responsibility of consumers and shareholders (our pension funds) – people in the street – to demand that these steps are followed.
"It is just not acceptable for any company to state a policy of not tolerating worker exploitation and unsustainable business practices if in reality that company continues to trade in, for example, palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia, where there are known, and serious, labour rights issues and where very little has been done to tackle the issue.
"Companies need to overtly work with failing companies to change their practices, or to separate themselves from those failing businesses and to make a public stand against them. Alternative, better, corporate strategies for getting food onto our plates – strategies that do no harm – are called for.
"Sadly for now, I see neither of these courses of action being seriously followed. But that has to change.”
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