By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

Back during Advent I was in the checkout line at the supermarket and noticed a bin of chocolate bars that I hadn’t ever seen before. In bright green, blue, yellow and red wrappers were the words: Tony Chocolonely. I noticed that unlike just about everything else in the store, this company had apparently not read the memo about how to market products for the holiday season.

Their chocolate had a simple two-color paper wrapper and there wasn’t a snowflake, Christmas tree or Santa hat in sight. Instead, what stood out on the wrapper was an image of a breaking chain and the slogan: “Together we make chocolate 100% slave free.”

So I looked up the manufacturer and discovered that this brand of chocolate bar is named after a Dutch investigative journalist, Teun (Tony) van de Keuken, who was shocked to discover eleven years ago the connection between the production of chocolate (estimated yearly worldwide retail sales of $100 billion) and child labor and slavery.

After approaching and being ignored by the global chocolate conglomerates (Nestle, Mars, Hershey), van de Keuken ate several chocolate bars and turned himself in to the legal authorities in the Netherlands as an accessory to slavery. 2136 other chocolate consumers eventually joined him as prospective defendants in this prosecution and van de Keuken’s investigative reporting resulted in four boys from Cote d’Ivoire who were prepared to testify that they had been forced to work as slaves on a cacao plantation.

The judge eventually dismissed the case on the grounds that if van de Keuken and his co-defendants were to be prosecuted, any consumer of chocolate would be open to prosecution. So in 2005 van de Keuken decided to lead by example and to begin producing slave-free chocolate bars, with the motto, ‘Alone I produce slave-free chocolate; together
we make chocolate 100% slave-free.’

His effort is reminiscent of a similar initiative that began in England more than 200 years ago. Following the 1791 defeat of legislation intended to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, English abolitionists, led by the great William Wilberforce, launched a campaign to boycott sugar grown and processed using slave labor in West Indies. Supporters either eschewed sugar entirely or purchased sugar imported from the East Indies which was produced by free laborers. Historians believe that during the years between 1791 and
the eventual abolition of the slave trade, some 300,000 people stopped purchasing and using West Indian sugar and sales of slave-grown sugar fell by one-third to half in England. In a similar fashion, Tony van de Keuken began his campaign to end the slavery and exploitation in the chocolate industry.

60% of the world’s cacao (the raw ingredient of chocolate) come from 2 countries in West Africa, Ghana and Coted’Ivorie. In those two nations, there are about 2.5 million small farmers who grow and process cacao. Approximately 2.3 million child workers labor on cacao plantations. About ten percent of the children in the cacao trade work legally: working before and after school, away from dangerous machinery and tools and without being exposed to pesticides.

But the problem is that 90% of the children working to grow and harvest cacao do so illegally and in dangerous conditions. In addition, about 90,000 of these workers, adults and children have been trafficked. Most are from the nearby, impoverished countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Children and young people, promised they will earn money to help their families, are trafficked by unscrupulous labor contractors into Ghana and Cote d’Ivorie where they are forced to work as unpaid slave laborers.

To put trafficking and slavery in the production of cacao into a wider perspective, the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations reports that trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon. The ILO estimates that almost 21 million people are the victims of forced labor. 11.4 million are women and girls; 9.5 million are men and boys. 4.5 million, mostly women and girls are the victims of forced sexual exploitation, the remainder are forced to work as domestics, in agriculture, construction and manufacturing. The ILO estimates that trafficked (slave) labor generates $150 billion (US) in illegal profits each year.

Catholic Relief Services believes that there are more slaves today than at any time in history. Traffickers prey on women and children, refugees and migrants, and those living in extreme poverty. Pope Francis has called human trafficking “a crime against humanity” and “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.”

Despite the sheer numbers of those being exploited in the production of cacao alone, Tony van de Keuken and those working with him at “Tony’s Chocolonely,” show us that it is possible to take meaningful action to bring an end to trafficking and slavery. His is just one of many efforts by organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops among many others, working to establish ethical trading alternatives and model international and national legislation to help free those victimized by trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Those chocolate bars I saw last month with their slogan, “together we make chocolate 100% slave free” were the most seasonally appropriate items in the whole store. For it was in the person of Jesus that words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled: “The spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of
vindication by our God.” (Is.61:1-2)