By Steven Thomma
A labor-rights advocacy group asked the U.S. government Thursday to ban
imports of cocoa from Ivory Coast, saying a new investigation revealed that little
had been done to stop the use of child slave labor in its harvesting.
The group, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund, asked the
Customs Service to invoke a 1997 law that prohibits imports of any good
"produced or manufactured with bonded child labor." The group said the only
cocoa shipments from Ivory Coast that should be allowed into the United States
were those that had been independently certified as porduced without child slave
labor. In a 2001 series of articles, the Mercury News Africa Bureau detailed the
use of child slave labor in harvesting some cocoa beans in Ivroy Coast, the West
African Nationa that produces 43 percent of the world's cocoa. The series
resulted in assurances by the chocolate industry that it would work with
international labor organizations, government organizations and activists to end
child slave labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms.
In its complaint, the labor rights group said it could find no evidence of efforts to
end the use of child labor. It sent an investigator to the country this month.
"It's continuing," said investigator Marx-Vilaire Aristide, a research economist
who visited more than 24 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. "The government has
taken measures. It has arrested some brokers. They are very sensitive about this.
But if you probe, you realize it's still a problem."
Arisitide said farmers told him they still would pay brokers to get child labor
during the high season, from November to April.
The labor group said it did not have to prove that all cocoa beans in the country
were harvested by child slave labor. "The specific evidence of unlawful labor
necessarily extends to all importers of of cocoa from the Ivory Coast because the
tainted beans are mixed with all shipments," the group said in its letter to the U.S.
If the Customs Service does not invoke the law within 30 days, the International
Labor Rights Fund said it will sue in federal court to force the action.
The U.S. chocolate industry is against the proposed ban on cocoa imports. It
said progress is being made toward eliminating slave labor and that such a radical
step would punish the honest majority of African cocoa farmers.
The industry devised a plan last fall to work toward ending child slavery on Ivory
Coast cocoa farms. Its first step was to survey the farms to determine how
widespread the problem is. That survey was to have been completed by Dec.
31, but no results have been reported yet.
"We do believe the Ivory Coast is trying very hard to work with us to rectify the
situation," said Susan Snyder Smith, senior vice president of the Chocolate
Manufacturer's Association, the U.S. industry group.