Something interesting is going on at The Age newspaper in Melbourne. In the space of eight days, the newspaper has published two pieces about slavery in the West African cocoa growing industry. In September it also published a piece about this issue by a prominent Christian activist and anti-slavery campaigner from Britain, Steve Chalke.
Oddly, The Age’s sister publication in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald, has published none of these. Nor have competing newspapers shown any interest at all in the cocoa+slavery issue (I’ve searched through the News Limited stable, including news.com.au).
ABC radio has done one piece in the last six years, and that was an interview on The Religion Report with the same British campaigner on 26 September this year. I’m not aware of any television reports (certainly none at the ABC).
I’m wary of campaigners and bandwagons, and was therefore rather suspicious of The Age’s sudden repeated interest in the issue. I haven’t yet found a particular source for the information repeated in the articles, so although it might smell of press-release journalism, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Are we dealing with (1) a newspaper driven campaign, (2) familiar sloppy editorial control, or (3) a successful lobbying campaign which is only finding resonance at The Age? The issue of slavery in the cocoa industry is not new by any means (most of the material you’ll find out there relates to studies and media reports from the late 1990s/early 2000s. There have also been initiatives to combat slavery at an industry level and from other, especially religious, organisations. Many Australian religious organisations (Caritas, Salvation Army, etc) have cocoa+slavery material on their websites and do appear to have been concentrating on chocolate this year (and Hughes is known to write on issues of interest to Catholic organisations). I would venture a guess that this is because of, in part, the Stop the Traffik campaign led by the abovementioned Steve Chalke.
Why now? I haven’t found any new findings or comments about deterioration in the industry. In fact, it seems that there are indications of a reduction in (and/or original overstatement of) the levels of slavery since the first reports 5-10 years ago. It has also been found that, although slavery definitely exists in the West African cocoa industry, the vast majority (over 90%) of the children being forced to work are not slaves but instead local family members. That’s an issue of child labour. A report (Nkamleu and Kielland, 2006) prepared as part of the UN/ILO assessment of child labour in the cocoa industry observed that more than 50% of children (6-17yo) in farmer families in Côte d’Ivoire were involved in the cocoa production process, many of them in hazardous activities.
The piece in The Age by Steve Chalke deliberately confounds slavery and child labour. Juliette Hughes’s piece does little other than to say ‘hey there are some ethical issues here’, while the piece by Carmel Egan also mixes up slavery and child labour, though actually states figures which show the difference in numbers.
I’m not writing this to engage in a debate about the morality of eating chocolate — clearly there are enough people out there telling us not to, unless it’s Fairtrade (or equivalent) — but instead to draw attention to the sudden attention the slavery issue is getting in one newspaper. If anyone can throw any light on what’s going on, I’d be very interested.