Friday, October 14, 2011

Hershey the enslaver

So, for the past year or so I've been boycotting Hershey's chocolate because of its use of forced and child labor on cocoa plantations. Yes, I know this is a problem everywhere in West Africa, and the other major chocolate manufacturers have been involved in it too. But ten years back, they all signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, committing to clean up their supply chains and address these abuses. To date, all the other chocolate manufacturers have taken at least some steps toward complying. All except Hershey. In fact, they refuse even to say who their suppliers are—so there's no way for any third party to find out whether they are using slave labor or not. The company's recalcitrance has made it the target of a campaign called "Raise the Bar, Hershey" that is petitioning the company to (for a start) trace its supply chain, ask its suppliers to stop using forced labor, and add at least one Fair Trade-certified chocolate bar to its lineup. (You can read more and download a detailed report on the company's practices here.)

It was only today that I learned that Hershey is also exploiting workers right here in the United States. Oh, not American citizens, of course—not people who might actually be able to do something about it. These are foreign students here as part of a "cultural exchange" program to experience American culture. Instead, they're working long shifts in a Hershey's warehouse and being threatened with deportation for failing to meet production schedules. The money they're making isn't even enough to cover the cost of the visas they paid for to take part in this "cultural" experience.

What's interesting is that Hershey's approach to this labor problem on American soil is pretty much the same as the one it's taken with its chocolate: know nothing so you can deny everything. In the case of the student workers, they claim that this particular plant was being managed by a vendor and they knew nothing about the abuses taking place there. And with regard to the folks who grow their cocoa, they simply refuse to trace their supply chain so that they can claim they don't know a thing about any abuses taking place on the cocoa plantations. In other words, they simply refuse to look.

I've generally tried to avoid being too overtly political in this blog, but this has pushed me over the edge. I am going to go against my usual practice and ask outright: will you, all you folks who read this blog, join me in my boycott and spread the word to others? Ultimately, I think nothing but a direct hit to the pocketbook is going to get Hershey to take any action.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what the alternative is (since buying nothing but Fair-Trade-certified chocolate would make this a pretty expensive Halloween): M&M/Mars has committed to get 100 percent of its chocolate from sustainable sources by the year 2020, and they're on track to meet the 10 percent mark this year. So to encourage this positive commitment from a major company, I'm getting little Snickers bars for Halloween this year. (The fact that I really like Snickers bars is just a minor bonus.)
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