Stores are currently packed with chocolate confections shaped liked bunnies, butterflies, eggs, lambs and every other image related to Easter. Something similar occurs on the eve of Valentine’s Day, when chocolate creations similarly invade the marketplace.

But did you know that those sweets you savor with such relish are the products of child labor, of youths working under conditions akin to slavery?

The majority of the cocoa used around the world to produce chocolate is the result of the work of millions of children and adolescents, primarily from the African countries of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, according to a report by the United States Department of Labor (USDOL). Its investigations show that more than 1.75 million youths have worked cultivating cocoa crops in those two African nations alone over the past decade.

This type of work can be highly hazardous, particularly for minors who are still growing and developing physically, mentally and psychologically. They work long hours, lifting heavy loads and utilizing dangerous tools. In addition, they are often exposed to pesticides that are scattered over the crops and to the fires that are created to clear the fields. The USDOL investigation found that “more than half of the children who work on the cocoa farms have been injured.”

“As consumers we become complicit in this labor exploitation when we buy or use products produced under terrible working conditions, as occurs with chocolate, for example. There are adults who force children 5 years of age and older to pick cocoa for minimum pay or for no pay at all,” said María Elena Perales of Southern California Partners for Global Justice, a coalition of religious communities, organizations and agencies that work together to raise awareness, educate and take protective measures concerning unjust situations that violate human rights and dignity. An example of this is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.

“Cocoa farming mainly occurs in Africa, but also in some Central American countries where the exploitation situation is similar. We are contributing in a way to that servitude when we buy certain brands of chocolate without finding out where they originate, about their supply chain or if it’s a fair trade product,” said Perales, who, together with other members, organized the “Chocolate Symposium,” which recently took place at St. Mark’s Church in Venice. They expect to continue holding events like this to create awareness concerning the harvesting of chocolate, the social implications of what we buy and consume and about the significance of fair trade and its products.

In the parish hall the coalition placed trays with a large variety of chocolate brands that respect the working conditions of those who harvest the cocoa and, by doing so, avoid the labor exploitation of children and adolescents. This is the environment in which they shared information and printed materials with the participants.

“We are asking the community to pay attention to whether the merchandise they purchase includes logos that state ‘Fair Trade.’ This means it is being produced without exploiting their workers, and that includes not only chocolate, but also coffee, the clothes we wear. … We must look at the label to know where it is produced. There are websites where we can ask companies where and how they are produced,” added Perales. “We want to get the most out of our money and sometimes it is tempting to buy, for example, a pretty shirt that is very inexpensive, but it’s possible that its cotton was cultivated by children working under lamentable conditions.

“As consumers we have power. That’s why we have to be more informed and take action. Together we can make a difference in the lives of millions who are suffering. Let’s select a product that respects the rights of the workers, even if it’s a little more expensive. It’s one way of contributing towards improving the life of peasants and manufacturing,” pointed out Perales, adding that although there are no cocoa crops in Los Angeles, it is a city where slave labor exists in certain industries as well as sexual exploitation via human trafficking. Often the victims are immigrants.

Sister Kathleen Bryant and Father Bob Juárez are leaders in the local movement to create awareness about the exploitation situation and to find solutions to help combat it.

For more information:
rn (for a list of merchandise produced by minors) (for a list of companies that are not involved in exploitative labor practices)  (to learn how to take action)

How you can help:

If you suspect someone may be the victim of sexual or labor-related exploitation, call this free and confidential national hotline: 1-888-373-7888.