It is no secret that Americans love their coffee. Glance over at your nearest Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts drive-thru on your next morning commute and you’ll quickly be reminded of this fact. If it’s not coffee, an even larger segment of the U.S. population consumes chocolate in all of its various forms and fashions. You may be shocked to learn that coffee and chocolate—commodities enjoyed by hundreds of millions of Americans each day—are largely produced by unpaid slaves, underpaid and abused workers and even exploited and trafficked children. While staunch regulations are in place here in America ensuring that workers are paid adequately, treated humanely and are of legal working age, these types of regulations are either nonexistent or go unenforced in many other nations around the globe. According to a U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs study released in 2011, 71 countries worldwide export 130 goods that are produced with child labor and/or forced labor. With the endless supply of goods available here in the U.S., uninformed consumers may be regularly purchasing products that contribute to oppression and abuse without even realizing it.
Feeding the Beast
According to international human rights organization Global Exchange, coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity, second only to petroleum. Global Exchange also reports that coffee is America’s largest food import and that over 130 million Americans are regular coffee consumers. The U.S. imports coffee from over a dozen countries around the globe including Indonesia, Guatemala, India, Uganda, Vietnam, and more.
As for chocolate, CNN reports that the chocolate industry is an $83 billion a year business, making the industry’s value larger than the entire gross domestic product of over 130 nations on the planet. The same report found that the U.S. accounts for around 20% of annual worldwide chocolate consumption, while Europe accounts for nearly 50%.
In short, both coffee and chocolate are big business, both at home and abroad. When companies, looking to increase their bottom line either turn a blind eye to injustice or knowingly engage in unscrupulous business practices, the stage is set for the use and abuse of humans on a grand scale.
Why You Should Care
In Proverbs 31:9 the Bible says, “Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” Throughout the pages of scripture God both says and shows over and over that He is greatly concerned with human rights and the ethical treatment of others. Within the comfort and convenience of life in America, it is easy to become apathetic, uninformed and unconcerned about the plight of those who are being exploited and abused in developing nations, nations that can feel worlds away.
But just what is the abuse we are speaking of? In Guatemala, for example, coffee pickers must meet a 100-pound quota to earn their minimum wage of less than $3 per day. The U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) reports that providing the most basic of needs for an average-sized Guatemalan family costs $8 per day or more. Additionally, the quota-based system often compels workers to bring their children, as young as 6 years old, to work in the fields with them, exposing the children to grueling days in the hot sun, dangerous working conditions and long time periods out of school.
On the Ivory Coast of Africa, which CNN reports as supplying approximately 40% of the world’s chocolate, there is widespread trafficking of children from neighboring countries to labor in cocoa fields. On top of the horrible injustice of being trafficked into the industry in the first place, a November 2011 BBC report found “children carrying machetes or pesticide equipment…on their legs were scars from machete injuries. There was no first aid kit around or any protective clothing.”
While neither of the above examples may be particularly comfortable for the average American to consider, they are the reality nevertheless. Furthermore, the above has only examined and exposed a small cross-section of the 70+ nations producing products that involve some form of unjust or exploitative practices.
How You Can Help
As with affecting change on any issue, the first step is to become informed. With the wealth of information now available through the internet, there is simply no excuse to remain ignorant to the injustices taking place in the coffee industry, chocolate industry or any other industry whose practices violate human rights. Not for Sale (notforsalecampaign.org), The A21 Campaign (thea21campaign.org), and Slavery Footprint (slaveryfootprint.org) are great places to start. Once you have obtained the information for yourself, share it with others so that they can become informed as well.
Secondly, you can contribute to change immediately by changing your purchasing habits in order to spend your dollars with organizations that support human rights rather than trample on them. By refusing to purchase items produced through trafficking, the demand for these products is reduced. Synergistically, if you then choose to spend those dollars with a Fairtrade-certified (see fairtrade.net, fairtradeusa.org) company, your purchases will support companies with programs that directly benefit the front-line workers and their children in developing source nations. Free2Work (free2work.org), a Not for Sale initiative, is another great resource that provides ratings on many common U.S. retailers in order to inform consumers about a company’s human rights practices.
Thirdly, pray. Pray for those being exploited in the coffee and chocolate industries. Pray that the Lord will minister to them in the midst of their trials. Pray that the global church will rise up and mobilize to bring an end to human trafficking in all of its forms. And ask God how he wants to specifically use you to bring freedom and justice to other people that He deeply loves and sent His own son to die for. Now that you are no longer in the dark, what is God calling you to do about it?