Sweet Treats Have A Bitter Origin - FSU Law Students Advance Awareness of West Africa Child Labor Practices
Project HELP members say much of America's chocolate comes from the forced labor of young children.
There are plenty of international laws against enslavement, including forced labor involving children. But there are legal loopholes and that's what some graduate students at the Florida State University Law School are trying to help close.
FSU Law Professor Paolo Annino heads up the project.
"Two years ago, law students approached me. One student especially I remember asked for a human trafficking clinic at the Law School. Other students approached me with the same topic. So we got together with the students and talked to our administration person Erin O'Connor and we created the project called 'HELP.'"
Which Annino said stands for "Human Trafficking Exploitation Law Project." Part of that, he explained, is to offer legal representation to victims of human trafficking.
"But also we do research and we address all forms of human trafficking. Not only sex trafficking, but labor trafficking. And it was through our work on labor trafficking that we started learning about goods and products entering this country, which are produced by slave or child labor."
One product in particular, he said, sparked the project members' interest.
"Cocoa, which makes chocolate, comes from West Africa. And companies from the United States import huge amounts of cocoa from West Africa. And we know over 2,000,000 children are working in the cocoa fields."
One of the HELP team members is graduate student Julie Marble.
"What was so shocking to me is that it's been so known by our government and the chocolate industry for nearly two decades. So it hasn't been hidden and just come to light and so that's something that really fired me up."
And Marble noted the United States is a party to international law banning forced child labor, but there have been exceptions; notably for cocoa production. Marble's graduate colleague Daynica Harley said that's because so many giant companies depend on keeping the cost of cocoa as low as possible.
"As we see these giant corporations like Nestle and Mars and others that are so ingrained in the cocoa industry to know that we have an opportunity to stand against them. To use the laws that our own government has established to help take down child labor practices and to really make a difference, specifically in the West African cocoa trade."
The project has created a video to spread awareness of the issue. But Harley thinks another image may be equally effective. She suggests any consumer walking into a store where chocolate is sold imagine the following:
"You see chocolate. But rather than seeing the chocolate displayed on the shelves of the store, you see it held in the hands - the bloody, hard-worked hands - of 12-year olds or even children younger than that who labored to produce that simple bar of chocolate or bag of treats. It would really make you think twice about whether or not you need to make that purchase. Or whether you should look into companies that are producing similar chocolates, but with ethical production practices."
Because, as project member Julie Marble asserted, there are alternatives.
"It's not that you can't or shouldn't buy cocoa, because you have people working hard to make a living farming cocoa beans. But let's try to utilize the ways that, to the best of our ability as consumers, speaking with our pocketbook and buying chocolate that is fair trade or from companies that are really on a mission to help people."
It's something to keep in mind with a major occasion for purchasing chocolate - Valentines Day - just around the corner.