The slave traders who deal in misery so we can eat chocolate

Upper-intermediate / advanced level

Chocolate instantly conjures associations with good things. In this country, that means much more than the self-indulgent pleasure of eating it; there’s an entire philosophy of doing good, begun more than 200 years ago and still expressed today in the Bourneville Estate and the work of the Rowntree Trust.

The great Quaker families (Cadbury, Rowntree and Terry) were ahead of their time in their attitudes towards workers. Exploitation was a dirty word for them at a time when it was commonplace elsewhere. At the beginning of the 21st century, it seems grotesque to link an even more terrible practice with the chocolate which still carries those families’ names. Chocolate, it seems, carries modern-day slavery into our homes. There is no other way to describe the conditions in which an unknown number of cocoa farm workers are living in Cote D’Ivoire, the West African country which produces almost half the world’s cocoa beans. The crop makes its way anonymously on to the world market and virtually no major cocoa buyer can be sure that its product is not tainted with slavery.

“In Cote D’Ivoire, slavery is common knowledge,” says Kate Blewett, the ground-breaking film-maker who, with partner Brian Woods, went undercover in China eight years ago to make the documentary which shook the world, The Dying Rooms. “I just don’t understand why we have been the ones to find it,” she says. “I don’t know why one of the multinational companies hasn’t gone back to the roots and checked it out. Or perhaps the World Bank, the organisation responsible for restructuring the Cote D’Ivoire’s economy in the interests of farmers and workers. If it had, it would have seen what we saw.”

“It isn’t the slavery we are all familiar with and which most of us imagine was abolished decades ago,” says Brian. “Back then, a slave owner could produce documents to prove ownership. Now, it’s a secretive trade which leaves behind little evidence. Modern slaves are cheap and disposable. They have three things in common with their ancestors. They aren’t paid, they are kept working by violence or the threat of it and they are not free to leave. People are still living like this all over the world.”

They discovered young men, mostly teenagers as young as 14 and 15, are bought and sold in markets for as little as £20. They have usually walked from even poorer countries looking for work, and believe they are being taken to one of Cote D’Ivoire’s one million small cocoa farms, where they will be paid at the end of a year’s work. Instead, they work for nothing, staying on for two, three or even four years in the hope that their long-promised wages will eventually materialise. Some are held captive by this fact alone; that if they leave, they will never be paid. Others stay because, many hundreds of miles from home with no money and often weak from hard labour and little food, they have no idea where they are and no resources to find out. Should one of them try to leave, he will almost certainly be caught and viciously beaten.

Although the British chocolate companies, through the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance (BCCCA), deny any knowledge of such practices, the problem is so rife, and each farmer’s crops so anonymous in the market, that virtually no major cocoa buyer, British or foreign, can be sure their chocolate is not a product of slavery.

Kate and Brian made four trips to the Cote D’Ivoire and they smile grimly at the protests of the chocolate industry that the farms they visited were isolated aberrations from the norm of honestly-run family farms. “We were not in a position to conduct a national survey of one million Cote D’Ivoire farms,” says Brian. “But we can say that farms we visited were a random sample. We simply went to a big town in the west of the country and then looked for farms around it. When we saw cocoa, we walked into the trees to talk to any workers we could find — about 100 on different farms. Of those, I can only recall one who said he had been paid, and he was working on the only cotton farm we found.”

The president of the Malian Association of Friends, based in Cote D’Ivoire , believes as many as 90 per cent of cocoa farms there are using some slave labour. He believes that the problems are complex and won’t be solved by Westerners boycotting chocolate. That would only slash the already cripplingly low price of cocoa, cutting farmers’ profits from which to pay workers.

Kate and Brian are clear that just as chocolate consumers can make chocolate producers sit up and take notice with their purchasing power, so the vast confectionery companies could use their purchasing power to eradicate cocoa slavery. “These are companies whose annual turnover is bigger than the entire Gross National Product of Cote D’Ivoire and Mali combined,” says Kate. “If they wanted to change things, they could, and they could do it far quicker and more effectively than any bank or government.”

Asking what the British public can do prompts Kate and Brian to repeat the words which, over the years, have become their motto. Appropriately, given the history and traditions of chocolate production in this country, it is an old Quaker saying: “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.”


Pre-reading activities
  1. Do you think there is still trading in slaves today?
  2. Do you think this is likely to be carried out in exactly the same way as in the past?
  3. What do you think deal in misery means?
  4. What do you think the title means?
  5. Which parts of the world do you think might be mentioned in this article?

Skim the text in no more than 3 minutes to find out what the article is about. Compare what you an other students find.


Quickly scan the text to find the answers to these questions.

  1. What are the names of the Cadbury families?
  2. What are the names of the two film makers?
  3. Where have they worked before?
  4. What adjective is used to describe the film that they made?
  5. Are the slaves mainly men or women? What sort of age are they?
  6. How much may a slave cost?
  7. What is the BCCCA?
  8. How many workers did the film makers talk to?
  9. What percentage of farms may use slave labour?
  10. Whom do they accuse of doing nothing?

Look at these words in the text and try to guess the meaning from the context.

self-indulgentgrotesquemodern-daycommonplacetaintedundercoversecretiveriferandomanonymouslyviciouslygrimlycripplinglyexploitationaberrationsmottoto eradicate
  1. In the first two paragraphs the writer is describing something that (s)he finds very surprising. What is it?
  2. The crop makes its way anonymously on to the world market and virtually no major cocoa buyer can be sure that its product is not tainted with slavery. Can you rephrase this sentence in your own words?
  3. What are the three similarities between slavery in the past and slavery today?
  4. Do the writers believe that slavery is limited to certain areas of the world?
  5. Several reasons are given for slaves not running away; can you find three?
  6. Did Kate and Brian believe the chocolate companies when they said that they knew nothing about slavery?
  7. Did the president of the Malian Association of Friends agree with the idea of a boycott by western consumers?
  8. Whom do the writers accuse of neglecting their responsibilities? How is it that they have the power to push for change?
  9. Rewrite this saying in your own words: “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.”

What the companies have to say

The Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance (on behalf of Rowntree, Cadbury and Terry’s brands) denies any knowledge of slavery: “The BCCCA and its members deplore slavery and every other form of discrimination and exploitation, and supports all efforts towards their eradication. The industry has, for decades, had people in Cote D’Ivoire working with farmers and co-operatives to improve cocoa husbandry in an effort to provide a fair economic return to all. In this time, we have never seen evidence of slavery or reports of its existence. If we had, we would have taken appropriate action directly and with relevant government agencies. The industry works closely with non-governmental organisations and foreign aid agencies in the area and no reports of slavery have been received by these groups. We do not believe the farms visited by the programme are in the least representative of cocoa farming in Cote D’Ivoire, although the claims cannot be ignored. If, in the course of our visits later this year, any evidence of these abhorrent practices is revealed, we will inform the appropriate authorities and insist they take preventative action. The British chocolate industry was founded on the highest ethical principles and will take whatever steps it can to ensure that these principles are not compromised.”