Modern global slavery. Those words might sound as if they don’t belong together. Yes, slavery is illegal throughout the world, but it still exists. Estimates of the number of slaves throughout the world vary from 12 million to 27 million. There are slaves cutting down rain forest in Brazil, making charcoal to fuel steel plants. Slaves grow and harvest cotton, sugar, pineapples, rubber, coffee, chocolate… so many products are tainted by slave labor. The farmers who pay their workers get the same for their crop as those who use slaves, and the cotton, or cocoa beans, are mixed together, and nobody really knows which is which, or how much was made by slaves.

Fair trade companies have close relationships with the farms that supply them, and they are able to certify that farmers and farm workers are paid living wages and work under humane conditions. Workers have the right to unionize. Currently, buying fairly traded products is the only way to be completely certain that the products were produced without the use of slave labor.

Coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar are some of the products that you can buy from fair trade companies such as Equal Exchange and Global Exchange.

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Does Hershey have a split personality?

Milton Hershey, founder of the chocolate company, used his money to start a school for orphans, now known as The Hershey School. It now more broadly serves underprivileged children. When Milton died, he left his entire fortune to the school, which to this day is the best funded school in the world, and the major shareholder in the chocolate company.

I tend to have a bias that people who work with children, and underprivileged children in particular, care about children. So how can Hershey (the company) knowingly* buy their cocoa beans from farms that use child slaves to grow the cocoa? And the children are injured from using machetes, sickened by pesticides that they use, beaten, locked up, and so on.

So… does Hershey have a split personality?

*Hershey presumably does not know which farms use slavery, and not all of them do. But it’s been well documented, since 2001 at least, and despite their official position that slavery doesn’t exist, they have to know that it does.

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What makes it hard to think?

(Which might not be the best possible title for this entry. If you have a better title, suggest it in the comments section. There could be a small prize involved.)

Until just a few months ago, I was blissfully unaware that modern slavery even existed. Maybe not totally unaware – I had heard of the existence of sexual slavery in Asia, though I didn’t know any details. And I suspect that many Americans still don’t know that there are millions of slaves in the world — in fact, more slaves today than when the transatlantic slave trade existed.

Here is what I am wondering, though. What makes it difficult for people to hear the news that slavery still exists?

Is it too depressing and overwhelming? Too hopeless?

Does it seem like one of many competing ’causes’?

Does it sound like rhetoric? Like people are using the word “slave” to mean exploited workers in sweatshops?

Maybe folks feel vaguely guilty about eating chocolate?

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Hershey’s in Denial

Some months back, I emailed Hershey’s at their corporate website and asked them about slavery in their supply chain. They responded that a survey of thousands of West African cocoa plantations had not found a single instance of slavery.

That seems to be their official line. Nope, ain’t no problem here.

Never mind that the Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast) government has admitted that slavery exists. Never mind that Interpol conducted a cocoa plantation raid and freed dozens of child slaves. Hershey’s points to this survey and pretends there isn’t any such thing.

Hershey’s has just released a Corporate Social Responsibility statement, and ILRF and Global Exchange have released their own more critical statement. You can read about Hershey’s involvement here. I found this report comprehensive and thoughtful.

As the largest US chocolate company, Hershey’s has a lot of power to make children’s lives better, or to continue to profit from abused, enslaved kids. I think it’s time to hold them accountable.

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Cotton, Coffee, Ideals and being Human

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I just returned with my family from Friends General Conference Gathering, an annual Quaker event. It was energizing and inspiring, highlighted for me by a talk by George Lakey, a Quaker peace activist since the 1960s who is literally world renowned. I can’t say enough good things about George, he is just amazing, and still going in his sixties (though semi-retired).
While there (FGC was in Bowling Green, Ohio this year), I went to a local big-box store called Meijer to buy a hammock. Found some nice ones. Cotton. Imported from India. Where they have a lot of slavery, in agriculture and other areas.
It is certainly a pain to be constantly brought up against the global economy and the realities of the modern slave trade. But I didn’t buy the hammock.
A Friend remarked this week on John Woolman’s commitment not to buy anything made by slave labor. I would like to make that same commitment. It’s tough, with globalization and the various unknowns of corporations and their supply chains. I feel like the best I can do is to make that commitment with caveats: I will do my best not to knowingly buy anything made or grown with slave labor.
But I did drink a Starbucks coffee while traveling yesterday. Falling asleep at the wheel isn’t going to do anything to end slavery.
On the other hand, looking at the prices for fairly traded coffee at Equal Exchange, I realized that it’s actually quite reasonable, so I can start ordering it from there, and stop my own dependence on a slave made product.
One step at a time.

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gratitude, and an official report

Reading about slavery makes one realize how rich our lives are. People become vulnerable to being enslaved because they are so poor, and because there are so very many poor people in the world. When we hear statistics about how much the United States consumes, it doesn’t sink in. But we don’t have to worry, most of us, about where our next meal is coming from. It’s been changing my outlook to start noticing the things I have instead of the things I want, or the things I worry about.

The State Department released a report on Trafficking in Persons which groups nations into broad groups according to how they cooperate with international laws against slavery and trafficking (the movement across borders of captive slaves). There is some analysis of each nation, and there is acknowledgment that slavery even exists in countries such as the US and UK.

Secretary Clinton remarks that the US “funds 140 anti-trafficking programs in nearly 70 countries, as well as supporting 38 domestic task forces that bring state and local authorities together with NGOs,” but I wish I knew more about those programs. It’s a long report, and informative. You can download it as a single (large) PDF here. Other options for downloading are here.

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Nestle – an Ethical Issue or Ten

Okay, I am generally going to avoid name calling. The chocolate companies have been too greedy (like many corporations) and have manipulated market conditions for their own benefit. (Mainly, they encouraged lots of areas to grow cocoa in order to bring the price way, way down. Now those farmers are stuck growing a product that doesn’t bring in much money for them.) Not really nice, but my working assumption, until I see evidence to the contrary, is that the chocolate companies didn’t start child slavery in cocoa farming, that they have limited knowledge of where the beans actually come from, and that mostly they are turning a blind eye to a problem that they fostered.

However.  Nestle, unlike other chocolate manufacturers, operates representative offices and processing plants inside Cote d’ Ivoire, the country that produces 40% of the world’s cocoa, and which has the biggest child slavery problem in cocoa production.

And really, even child slavery in their supply chain is not Nestle’s biggest ethical gap. Many of us remember the boycott of Nestle in the 1980s, when it was learned that Nestle was selling baby formula in developing countries. Some problems with that are: formula has lower nutrition than breast milk so babies get sick and die, and most developing countries have severe shortages of sanitary drinking water, so babies get sick and die. And Nestle doesn’t generally even print the instructions in the countries’ own languages, so people prepare it wrong. Guess what happens then?

The original Nestle boycott ended when the company pledged to change the way they sold their infant formula. But they didn’t keep their promises.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. So far, I haven’t found estimates of how many child deaths are directly because of Nestle’s sales of infant formula. But over the decades that they have been marketing it, they have shown their callous indifference to human misery.  Please boycott Nestle. Thanks.

Here is a list of Nestle products. Avoid them like the plague.

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Chocolate Scores

Some of the chocolate companies have made some real changes to how they do business. The ILRF, an international workers’ organization, ranked US companies on how much they were part of the problem, or part of the solution. The link below is to the PDF file.


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World Day against Child Labor

I still have a persistent image of Hershey’s as a relatively benign company. Milton Hershey started that school for orphans, right? Right. So how can they be supporting child slavery in Africa? Well, maybe that sounds a bit harsh to say they support it. It’s not like they voted for slavery. But literally, they do support slavery, since they know it is going on, and they keep on buying cocoa from people who hold children in slavery.

The International Labor Rights Forum is asking people to call Hershey’s, as part of a campaign against forced child labor in cocoa production. So consider taking a minute or two to call Hershey’s at 1-800-468-1714. They’ll be there from 9 to 4.

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a Prayer

Lord, help me to know and follow your Will. Help me to bring slaves to freedom, and to end the oppressive institution of slavery wherever it exists in this your world.

Where slavery is supported by greed, let there be healing with generosity and contentment.

Where slavery is supported by poverty, let there be enough food, enough medical care and clean water, enough of all necessities.

Where slavery is supported by war, let there be peace.

Where slavery is supported by indifference, let there be caring.

I am far too weak and stupid to accomplish anything on my own, Lord. Forgive me my sins, and my weaknesses. Help me to make a difference in the world. Help us all to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.


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