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20 May 2002 : Column 126

Chocolate Production

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

9.48 pm

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): When some colleagues heard that I planned to raise the issue of chocolate slavery in the House, they thought that I wanted to share my concerns about addiction to chocolate. As a nation, we are to some extent all slaves to chocolate. Each of us in Britain consumes 7 kg of chocolate every year, and we spend a cool £4 billion annually on the product. It takes about 6,000 cocoa beans to make up our individual annual consumption of chocolate.

My purpose in calling for this debate is to persuade us to pause between mouthfuls to think where those beans come from and at what cost, for consumers are not the only slaves to chocolate. In many countries of west Africa, as we now know, thousands of children and young people work as forced labour on the cocoa plantations.

The scandal was dragged into our consciousness last year when a vessel, the Etireno, was found to have 40 children and young people aboard, most of them aged under 15, who were being trafficked to work in Gabon. Shocking though that was, it was not an isolated incident. UNICEF tells us that between 10,000 and 15,000 children a year are trafficked into Côte D'Ivoire alone, the largest of the cocoa producing countries of west Africa.

We are told that a fit young man can be bought for the equivalent of £20 or less. He might then be forced to work for 80 to 100 hours a week, never be paid, rarely be fed and frequently be beaten. Anti-Slavery International, with which I have had the privilege to work over the years, has done much to keep the issue in the forefront of public attention. It relates the story of a child it names as "ID", who is now 15 years old but who was trafficked at the age of 13 to work on a coffee and yam plantation in Côte D'Ivoire:

Outrage that fellow humans can be subjected to such exploitation is a natural response, but outrage is not enough. Outrage alone will not help the people living in the poor countries of west Africa, many of whom depend for their very existence on the cocoa industry. In Côte D'Ivoire, which is responsible for almost half the world's cocoa production, more than 7 million people are estimated to be dependent on the cocoa industry. Their conditions are made worse by the fact that the world price of cocoa is unstable and has been falling sharply. Today, it is little different from the level at which it stood 30 years ago.

We have a responsibility to tackle exploitation, and, in particular, to make sure that the International Labour Organisation convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour is enforced. I am pleased that the UK Government

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have been taking a lead by supporting the work of the ILO and non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children and Anti-Slavery International in a number of west African countries. But we also have a responsibility to do that in such a way that we work with those nations in a joint effort to protect and build a fair trade in their products, allowing them to eliminate child slavery without also eliminating the industries on which their economies depend.

That is why I also pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for bringing together almost exactly a year ago the largest cocoa producers, representatives of the Governments of Ghana and Côte D'Ivoire, the cocoa and chocolate industries, and non-governmental organisations to address the question of exploitative labour practices in west African cocoa production. The meeting resulted in the creation of a taskforce and a commitment to undertake research into the extent of exploitative labour practices in west African cocoa production. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an indication tonight of the results of that research, or of when those results can be expected. I am sure that the House would also welcome a progress report on the work of the taskforce. Industry leaders have told me that they believe that the UK Government have an important role to play in promoting a continuing dialogue leading to action on this matter.

The chocolate industry has also reacted constructively to the adverse publicity surrounding revelations of chocolate slavery, and I am grateful to the industry association, the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance, and to Cadbury Schweppes itself, for providing me with briefings on their attempts to improve cocoa working practices. It should be made clear that the industry comprises not only the makers of chocolate bars—themselves leading world brand names—but the major food manufacturers, which purchase cocoa for the production of biscuits, cakes, breakfast cereals and a range of other foodstuffs that find their way into our shopping trolleys.

The problem for the industry is that much of the cocoa is purchased on world markets, without any means of tracing its original source. The cocoa produced by the hundreds of thousands of smallholdings in countries such as Côte D'Ivoire is combined with that supplied from elsewhere. As a result, it is impossible for us to be sure that the products of slavery are not lurking in our kitchen cupboards and fridges.

I should emphasise that the exploitation is not confined to countries such as Côte D'Ivoire and Ghana, whose Governments have joined others in actively working to tackle the problem. This is a problem that taints all products using cocoa, other than fair trade and most organic products.

The industry's response has been constructive, as I have said. In September, it established a protocol for growing and processing cocoa beans in a manner that complies with ILO convention 182. The protocol sets out an action plan and defines a series of steps to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2005. It also establishes an advisory group and a joint foundation to act as a clearing house on best practice. The protocol provides for a series of independent surveys of child labour practices in west Africa. The industry is also seeking to help and encourage

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farmers in the producer countries to form themselves into co-operatives so as to increase their bargaining power on the sale of their products.

I welcome those initiatives, and I know that hon. Members will welcome them. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House tonight that his Department is in regular contact with industry representatives to ensure that the protocol is being implemented effectively and vigorously. I hope that he will tell me that the Government are backing the fair trade movement as one way of ensuring that producers receive a fair price for their product. Does he support a demand for chocolate products to carry a "slavery free" label, so that consumers who wish to exercise their purchasing power to reject exploitation and reward corporate responsibility can do so?

There may be good reasons for not calling for immediate direct action by consumers. Perhaps we should wait to see whether the industry, working with Governments and NGOs, can meet its own target of 2005 for the elimination of illegal labour practices. However, the economy of Côte d'Ivoire is fragile enough, and many people depend on cocoa to earn a legitimate, albeit meagre, living.

The patience on our part must be dependent on making genuine progress; our patience must be strictly conditional if it is not simply to become an excuse for once again turning a blind eye to practices that had no place in the 18th century, let alone the 21st, and in the process turning our backs on people who need and deserve our protection.

The industry can only ensure that its products are slave-free in one of two ways. Either it must source its raw materials directly from individual producers whom it knows are not using exploitative labour practices, or it must work with Governments and NGOs to ensure that those practices are eliminated throughout cocoa production.

To do that we shall have to tackle the evil of child slavery at its root—and that root is poverty and debt. I applaud the work that this Government are doing to raise the standards of life for the poorest people in the poorest countries. This country has taken the lead in tackling the burden of debt that helps to trap people in a vicious spiral of poverty and indebtedness. I hope that the Minister can tell us what progress is being made in tackling the debt burden of countries such as Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana.

The extent of modern-day slavery in the production of cocoa and chocolate is not yet known, but that it exists is not in doubt. The production of chocolate may not be the only, or even the main, industry using child and adult slaves. Other products that we use in our everyday lives, such as coffee and cotton, also account for a significant number of the 8 million children who the ILO believes are the victims of extreme exploitation. However, chocolate, as a luxury product with brand names that we can all identify, presents us with the starkest contrast between the comforts enjoyed by those of us in the richer countries and the hardship and exploitation in the poorest countries of the world on which that comfort depends.

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