The Common Good

Labor Day Weekend Ironies: What Do Child Labor and S'mores Have in Common?

Last Monday, our family, like millions of other Americans, sat in holiday weekend traffic to get back home after an extra day away. I sat in the passenger seat and watched boats, jet skis, 4X4's, horse trailers, and any other sort of recreational gadget you can imagine inch down Interstate 90 alongside of us. Slow going.

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We stopped for a bite to eat, and as I ushered my kids to the table I saw a 10ish-year-old girl wearing a pink and white sparkly T-shirt. It said this: "My Very Best Friend -- Hershey's." The "Hershey's" part was the color and shape of a Hershey's bar. Now this little logo and I had just hung out by the campfire for two nights. With our friends the graham cracker and the marshmallow. We had a good time making S'mores with our family this weekend.

And honestly, I did not give those fire-lit moments a second thought. They were filled with cool weather, sunsets, the sounds of waves lapping up the sand on the beach, and my kids squirming and trying their hardest to keep that hot marshmallow from oozing out too quickly from their graham crackers. Pure, sticky, holiday weekend bliss.

Then I got home and did another round of edits on my book. In particular, I needed to update a few statistics on my chapter that discusses the drama of chocolate. The one where I remind myself, and anyone who will listen, that our national sweet tooth comes with a price that is paid by many other children.

That in West Africa, in places such as Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Cote d'Ivoire there are an estimated 250,000 children who work on the family cocoa plantation. Rather than go to school, get health care, or even learn how to read or do something a bit more productive with their lives, they get to crack open cocoa beans so that I can get cheap chocolate bars.

According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the kids that do get paid for their work (because they are working for a plantation not owned by their family) make around $80 annually (half of what an adult working the same job and hours will make). And some 140,000 of them wield machetes in the field (under age 15) and another 200,000+ of them get to apply pesticides (often without any protection).

Technically, the giant corporations that make our chocolate don't employ these kids; they pay middlemen to arrange all of the dealings for them so they can look squeaky clean. And yes, technically, child labor has been outlawed and a voluntary protocol for corporations to live into was set with a deadline of 2005, and then another deadline in 2008. Still unmet. Nice idea, but when will it actually work?

Life in West Africa, and even down the street from any of us, is not all it looks to be. And these shiny new advances in abolishing child labor look and sound good. But the reality is that poverty will keep children working no matter what you try to do. If you have to choose between sending your 8-year-old out to the field or sending him to school, you will send him to the field if it helps feed you all. Hunger trumps education almost every time.

Doctoring up a few reports to look like kids don't work is not the answer. Paying fair wages and ending the cycle of poverty is the answer. Pay their parents better wages so that they won't need their kids to work. Yes, I know there are a few more complexities here, but honestly, it breaks down to getting paid enough to raise your quality of life so that you can do the same for your kids.

For families in poverty on the cocoa field, this sending your kids to work thing is not really a choice. It is survival. But me, I have a choice. For some reason God placed me in a comfy little life where my kids get to make S'mores on, ironically, Labor Day.

So tonight I sit here reeling with guilt over something as seemingly benign as a chocolate bar. That girl. Her T-shirt. Her best friend is Hershey? I wonder if the kids in Cote d'Ivoire can say the same.

P.S. Fair trade chocolate. Buy fair trade chocolate or don't buy it at all.

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com.

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