December 2, 2019


Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery are problems embedded in the complex global supply chains that produce the goods we buy and use every day. Many of the products on the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor are agricultural products, which means that many of them are food. These include corn, sugarcane, coffee, beans, rice, cocoa, fish, tomatoes and so on.


In Africa, an estimated 2 million children work on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which produce 60% of the world’s cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. According to a Washington Post investigation, boys from Burkina Faso were lured from home with false promises of educational opportunities, taken to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and controlled by a “gran patron”, which means “big boss”.  A farmer who was interviewed said he pays the “gran patron” a little less than $9 per child for a week of work, who would, in turn, pay each of the boys about half of that. That would mean that a boy would receive a salary of less than $4.5 a week, if at all.

According to a lawsuit filed at the US Supreme Court by six former child labourers, who were kidnapped from their native Mali and put to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, “they were forced to work up to 14 hours a day, given only scraps of food to eat, and were severely beaten or tortured if they tried to escape.” The conditions are hazardous, because boys on the farms, some as young as six, are forced to spray dangerous pesticides and use sharp machetes to clear the forest.

In 2001, eight major chocolate companies, including Hershey, Mars & Nestlé USA, pledged to eradicate child labour by 2005, in an agreement that became known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol. They missed the deadline in 2005, and then again in 2008 and 2010. They then scaled back their promises and set a goal to reduce child labour by 70% by 2020, a deadline they also missed. This failure, according to critics, is due to indecision and insufficient financial commitment. According to the Washington Post investigation, “the industry, which collects an estimated $103 billion in sales annually, has spent more than $150 million over 18 years to address the issue.”


Modern Slavery is also a problem in the coffee industry. Around the world, approximately 26 million people work on coffee plantations every year and may be in conditions of child labour or forced labour in 18 different countries.

For example, forced labour and child labour have been reported in Brazil, which is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, accounting for about one-third of the global market. A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation over six months uncovered extensive slave labour running largely unchecked in Minas Gerais, a region that produces more than half the coffee beans in Brazil. In 2019, inspectors discovered workers, including children as young as 13, who were undocumented, underpaid and lacking safety equipment as required by law. “The workers had no rights whatsoever,” said Marcelo Campos, the labour inspector who coordinated the raids.

Women and children are highly vulnerable to exploitation on coffee plantations. Women tend to perform lower skilled tasks, work more hours overall, be paid less and experience high rates of sexual assault. Child labour is also a persistent issue. Family-run, smallholder coffee farms produce 60% of the world’s coffee, and almost half of these families live in poverty. When coffee prices fall in this volatile market, families cannot afford to send their children to school and are forced to put them to work on their farms.


The crux of the problem is that corporations currently do not suffer any serious consequences for failing to address the issue of modern slavery in their supply chains. They are unlikely to take meaningful action until there is sufficient incentive. Collectively, consumers have the power to incentivize much-needed change. By encouraging companies to take steps to make their supply chains ethical and sustainable and by rewarding the companies that do so with their purchasing power, consumers make a great difference.