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Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Meeting the 'chocolate slaves'
Child workers
Child workers are easy to find in cocoa plantations

The morning Malian sun was so severe that it cast on the white-washed wall stark shadows of the four children sitting upright and bewildered on a bench.

A fan cooled sweat from their faces. Its breeze blew a sheet of paper off the table. One of the children helpfully ran after it and handed it over to the woman looking after them.

"We are like your parents," she told them gently. "Whatever is here belongs to you."

One of the boys buried his face into his cupped hands, the relief was so great. The oldest was 13. The youngest, 10.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

Kidnap attempt

"I was playing football," said Karim Sadibe. "This man said I should come with him to the Ivory Coast. He would sign me up for the national team and I would get lots of money and that I shouldn't tell my parents."

Karim went, but luckily was intercepted by police. The man who was to have sold him into slavery - probably for about 50 - melted away.

I don't know how one human being can treat another in the way they treated me

Former child slave

Karim was sent back to Mali, to a centre run by Save the Children Fund, Canada. All of that had taken place within the past week.

Next door was 20-year-old Moussa Doumbia. He slipped off a freshly pressed pink shirt to reveal welted scars where he had been made to carry sacks of cocoa until he managed to escape two years ago.

At night he slept on the floor in a locked room. He was given food once a day. If he complained, he was beaten. The boys who tried to escape had their feet cut with razors.

"I don't know how one human being can treat another in the way they treated me," he whispered.

Chocolate industry

The answer, put simply, is because the market is there for it - and until recently no one bothered to question the ethics behind it.

Unlike wine or coffee, with chocolate you don't know for sure which country the cocoa comes from. The chances are, though, it is the Ivory Coast, which produces almost half the world's cocoa.

The British spend four billion pounds a year on chocolate
The British spend 4bn (US$5.9bn) a year on chocolate, yet the big household names, such as Cadbury Schweppes, Mars and Nestle, refuse to speak individually on the thorny issue of child labour.

They describe it as an "industry" issue. They say they are setting up a trust foundation and that surveys have been commissioned. They've also signed an international protocol.

By July 2005, we should be guaranteed that our chocolate is not produced with child slave labour.

At present, no such guarantee exists.

How this will be done, though, is not clear. No figures on money and manpower are available.

As for the surveys, no one had even gone through the Mali government records, for example, to see how the trafficking takes place.

"The objective of the surveys is to look at what is going on in the field, in the cocoa growing areas themselves, right now," said Bob Eagle, the industry spokesman, put up by the chocolate companies.

"Not to see the children themselves," I ventured.

"I think if we look at the detail and objectives it is very much about what is going on in the villages and towns."

Child labour

So I set off to find out what was going on. A drive of hundreds of miles from the parched bush land of Mali to the lush jungle of Ivory Coast.

I had thought that finding child labour would be difficult. I had talked to contacts, gathered phone numbers, spent hours of preparation. In the end, I needed none of it.

After a 30 minutes' drive from our hotel in the city of Yammousoukrou along the main road to Sinfra, we turned into a village, drove through, down a dirt track, past a cocoa plantation and saw gangs of children coming towards us.

They wore grubby, torn T-shirts and carried machetes, their heads hung in confusion.

It was a Wednesday morning. The oldest was 13 years old. The others didn't know their age. The youngest was probably six or seven.

As we talked to them, another gang passed us on their way to work. After that a group of women, who saw nothing unusual about child workers.

Then their boss turned up, on a bicycle, looking for them. He was only 15 himself.

Tiring work

It turned out the boys were shunted between maize, coffee and cocoa farms - depending on the season. If they were paid, it was the equivalent of a pound a day - between the ten of them.

"We spend all the time bent over in the field," one said.

"It's terrible," said another. "Hot, tiring work."

Cocoa pod
Ivory Coast produces half the world's cocoa

Down the road to my right was a cocoa farm.

In front of me was evidence of the contravention of at least two International Labour Organisation conventions aimed at protecting children from abusive labour and giving them a right to an education.

If child labour is so easy to find, the numbers might be in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions.

I gave their names to an official of the Ivory Coast government and told him where we found them. I showed their pictures to the chocolate spokesman, Bob Eagle.

There was no sign that any immediate help was on its way to them. Mr Eagle said exploitative child labour was unacceptable in his industry - and reiterated the deadline of July 2005 to end it.

But that means, although we know who they are and where they are, they could be working in the farms for at least another three years.

At the centre in Mali, Save the Children Fund says, if the will was there, the problem could be fixed within a month.

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