A chartered ship off the coast of West Africa caught the attention of the international media on 13 April. Was it engaged in ferrying illegal immigrants or a vessel crammed with a child slave cargo destined for the poverty and cruelty of work on cocoa plantations? Six days later the authorities and human rights workers are still trying to establish who exactly was on board the MV Etireno. Clare Harman investigates the incident and the repercussions it is having on the chocolate industry.

The MV Etireno had left the port of Cotonou in Benin on 30 March with room for 200 passengers. Nearly two weeks later, on 11 April, it was refused permission to dock in the port of Libreville in Gabon. The Gabonese police will later explain that that decision was made because the ship carried 100 illegal immigrants. According to the Gabonese Transport Ministry however, the ship carried up to 250 Nigerian children destined for slavery among the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast.

The following day, 12 April, the Etireno is turned away from the port of Douala, where Cameroon police say 28 children are on board, and is thought to start heading back to Contonou. Authorities here believe the number of children could reach 250.

By 14 April, a large-scale search effort was launched for the vessel while fears were raised for the safety of those on board, who were without fresh water or food because the ship had only planned to sail for two days. Three days later however, the vessel returned to Benin in good condition from its 12,000-mile voyage, where it was met by United Nations officials. Its records showed that it took onboard just 139 passengers, who all arrived in good health. No signs existed of the ship’s human cargo of slaves, or even unaccompanied children.
So what happened?

An investigation is now underway to reveal if, as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) fears, the children were pushed overboard in an attempt by the captain and crew to avoid prosecution. The authorities are also determining whether a second ship, as yet unidentified, was carrying child slaves.
The weight of interest in the incident revolves around the assumption that the Etireno was carrying child slaves and the implicit acknowledgment that such labour exists among the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast.

Industry acceptance that child slaves exist

Few voices have been raised in defiance of this assumption, a stark contrast to the response last September to a Channel 4 documentary on slavery in cocoa plantations, which claimed that 90% of plantations in the Ivory Coast use slave labour. At that time, UK chocolate market leaders, Cadbury, Nestlé and Mars joined efforts through the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance to investigate the allegations. 

The investigation concluded: “It is quite wrong to imply that slavery is either widespread or representative of conditions generally on cacao farms […] we are confident that, while illegal practices may exist, this is on a very limited scale indeed and confined to certain areas.” Slavery may occur somewhere, but the UK alliance’s representatives failed to find any evidence at all in connection with their suppliers. The conclusion was made despite the fact that the group had not conducted field research in West African plantations.

There already exists an international ban on slavery is every country. On 17 June 1999, Convention 182 against “the Worst Forms of Child Labour” was adopted by a unanimous vote by all member countries of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that thousands of children are being trafficked or sold into indentured servitude on cocoa plantations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, and Gabon.

According to anti-slavery lobbyists, children aged between nine and twelve, from Mali, Benin, Central African Republic and Togo, are regularly abducted, bought from their parents or enticed into slavery with promises of education. Instead they become so-called “chocolate slaves.”

The Ivory Coast produces 41% of the world’s cocoa (ICCO estimates). Last year, cocoa prices plummeted to a thirty year low and observers admit that the prospect of an unpaid workforce amid such economic depression is a tempting one. Children are already commonly employed on family farms, and the ILO believes that at least 378,000 children were economically active in the Ivory Coast during 2000, 18.65% of the ten to fourteen age group  (ILO STAT. Working Papers, 1997). Estimates vary widely however on how many of those children are employed illegally, bought as slaves. Malian authorities believe there are about 600 “chocolate slaves,” based on the number of children repatriated and arrested at the border between 1995 and 1998. Unicef, while failing to quantify the number working illegally, believe there to be between 10,000 and 15,000 boys currently working on Ivorian plantations.

Sali Kante, director of Save the Children in Mali, spoke of the labour: “People who are drinking cocoa or coffee are drinking their blood. It is the blood of young children carrying cocoa sacks so heavy that they have wounds all over their shoulders. It’s pitiful to see.”

Observing the incident in Britain, foreign office minister Brian Wilson commented on 15 April that the Etireno was “a timely reminder that slavery and bondage are still realities in the world. Major British manufacturers of cocoa and chocolate products must be scrupulous in their choice of suppliers and in ensuring that internationally acceptable standards apply. I would ask every company involved in these industries to ensure that they are not profiting, unwittingly or otherwise, from the slave labour of children.”

British confectionary giant Cadbury responded to the news of the Etireno by appealing for an international effort in order to stamp out child slavery on African cocoa plantations. The incident, it says, has highlighted an issue that needs urgent attention, despite the fact that its previous investigations were adamant in uncovering no evidence of child slavery at all. Company spokesman Richard Frost said that help was needed on a worldwide scale, and stressed that 90% of Cadbury’s cocoa comes from Ghana, the second largest producer of cocoa in the world and a country believed to be unaffected by the child slave trade.

“What we need to do is to support the efforts of those African governments which are trying to tackle this,” he argued. Furthermore, Frost points out: “This is not an issue confined to cocoa. We believe the same thing happens with rice, maize and coffee.”

The Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance added that it supports Cadbury’s stance on the issue and “totally condemned” the use of child slaves.

There is still no solid evidence to prove a link between the £4m worth of chocolate (around 550,000 tons) consumed in Britain every year and its reliance on an exploited workforce of “chocolate slaves.” Reassuring perhaps, the very composition of the chocolate preferred by the British palate relies on vegetable rather than cocoa butter.  It is only by fully acknowledging however a potentially bitter side to the UK’s staple sweet, the proliferation of child slaves that harvest the cocoa, that the issue can be dealt with.

The market is opening up to “Fairtrade” chocolate bars, such as Divine, Dubble, or Green & Black’s Maya Gold, which are produced with an independent guarantee that the cocoa is grown without slavery. High-profile incidents such as the surrounding the Etireno are bound to prompt consumers to demand such reassurances.

The confectionery industry may simply be paying lip service to the furore the Etireno has unleashed in the international media. Or it may now be seriously committed to fully uncovering the murky details of a market built on child slavery and exploitation. Either way, it seems that the link between chocolate and slave is a potent one.

By Clare Harman, just-food.com editorial team