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OPED: Chocolate industry still tied to child slave labor
I remember like it was yesterday, his broad shoulders blocking out the sun as we stood in line for the Great Bear. Hershey Park was our second date and I can still see the twinkle in his eyes as we ran from ride to ride.
Fast forward five years. We’re now married, sitting at our kitchen table in Ireland. Scattered around us are our children and candy laid out from a care package from family in the states.
Among the packages are the coveted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey Bars for making Smores. Watching the children eagerly eye their bounty, I find myself shrinking back, the usual celebratory moment darkened by an article I recently read on Hershey’s knowing use of child slave labor in its purchase of cocoa from West Africa.
The article in my news feed from Made In a Free World (www.madeinafreeworld.com), felt like an intimate attack. Like many, I carry a personal pride having grown up near the chocolate giant that has done so much good in the world.
Yet, the research clearly exposed that Hershey has known about the slavery for many years — well over a decade. And there was a mound of criticism for what appeared to be apathy and more concern for public image rather than genuine concern.
The plantations of West Africa, where the majority of cocoa is produced, utilize some of the most brutal conditions known to those who work on anti-slavery front lines.
Children are stolen from villages or purchased from parents for a pittance under the guise of apprenticeship. Children as young as five — beaten, whipped, terrified, locked in sheds and starved, and often murdered.
As one little boy in a documentary says as he shows the camera man his wounds, “You are eating my flesh.”
I wrote to Hershey, stating my deep distress over this issue, also recounting many fond memories, hoping for good news in their efforts to end child slavery in their cocoa supply chains. Hoping I wouldn’t have to tell my kids “Sorry. No more Hershey chocolate in this house.” After a few days, I received an automated message with an extensive list of Hershey’s initiatives.
Something about the email didn’t ring true.
Feeling inadequate to the task and conscience of possibly lacking the bigger picture, I emailed a representative from Made In a Free World asking what the realistic expectations could be for a company entangled in such a complex issue? She responded by saying Hershey was the last to join the anti-slavery efforts of the other cocoa companies and that when she visited West Africa she was “not impressed by their efforts.”
I responded to Hershey’s email and asked bluntly:
- Have you stopped using child slave labor?
- Have you informed the public of your use of child slave labor? (Hershey was one of three companies to win a recent law suit relieving them from the obligation of labelling their products as having been made with slave labor.)
I received no response.
In the slavery novel, The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd writes “There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things…”
I don’t know what I find more disheartening: the silence of a large corporation I once loved and trusted or of those on my social media who use Hershey’s services and products. Even my requests for further information went unanswered.
Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission (IJM.org), one of the leading organizations fighting violence against the poor who strongly condemns child slavery, says “Justice is doing for others what we would want done for us.”
I doubt anyone reading this supports slavery, especially the slavery of children.
But is the rescue of suffering children thousands of miles away as important as our and our children’s…recreation?
Here in the west, one of our greatest tools of rescue is to stop the demand.
Who is willing to forgo their chocolates or their summer trips to Hershey Park to help put an end to that demand?
Not many. And Hershey knows it.
“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” — Prof. Julius Lester
As the summer sun descends on my children, tongues perched on mounds of ice cream, I imagine the same sun falling over the boy in the documentary, if he is even still alive.
Not as a magical sunset on a leisurely summer day, but as a devouring dragon.
— Nicole Watt is a York native. She lives in Northern Ireland with her husband and children. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org