For many years, child labor in the cultivation of cocoa beans for export as a key ingredient for making chocolate has been a rampant problem in West Africa, with children held back from attending school and forced to harvest the crop on farms.

Though not many consumers in Japan are aware of or sensitive to the issue, some chocolate producers in the country have recently decided to take a stand through a campaign to source child labor-free cocoa and provide local farmers with assistance for improving working conditions.

One such company is Yuraku Confectionery Co., whose main product is its Black Thunder chocolate bar. The chocolate maker announced in 2020 that all the ingredients used in its products will be sourced from farms free of child labor by 2025.

A boy forced to engage in child labor carries a sack of cocoa beans in Ashanti Region, Ghana, in 2011 (Copyright, ACE) (Kyodo)

Black Thunder chocolate bars are now free of ingredients linked with child labor, and roughly 96 percent of such produce has been removed from the company's other products.

"I've always wanted to bring smiles to our customers' faces through our products, but I felt it would be a contradiction if I was exploiting someone else's smile in the process," said company president Tatsunobu Kawai, who first learned about the issue through Action against Child Exploitation, a nonprofit organization known as ACE.

Kawai took up the initiative after hearing about how exploited children are often unable to attend school in Ghana, Japan's largest supplier of cocoa, because they are forced to work on farms to cultivate the crop.

Changing suppliers was not easy. "At the time they reacted reluctantly, saying that they were unable to suddenly start providing me with that kind of produce, and that costs would go up."

Eventually, the company signed a contract with a new overseas supplier that was able to source cocoa produced without using child labor.

Since then, the domestic companies that previously supplied Yuraku Confectionery have come to understand the importance of the company's stance, and now sell child labor-free cocoa and other ingredients.

Yuraku Confectionery President Tatsunobu Kawai holds his company's products in August, 2023 in Tokyo. (For editorial use only)(No reuse permitted) (Kyodo)

In the spring, a group made up of international human rights organizations and others announced the Chocolate Scorecard, an annual ranking that rates how compliant major chocolate companies and trading firms are when it comes to upholding human rights and environmental standards in their supply chains.

Topping the rankings for Japanese companies was Fuji Oil Holdings Inc., which develops, manufactures and sells food products derived from plant-based oils and fats. The Osaka-based company also supplies Yuraku Confectionery with child labor-free cocoa.

Fuji Oil has set itself the goal of removing child labor from its supply chain by 2030 and is aiming to procure its ingredients more sustainably.

Hitoshi Shindachi, senior executive officer at the company, said, "At the root of child labor is poverty. The only way we can eliminate child labor is by enriching the livelihoods of individual farmers."

Fuji Oil's programs include helping farmers in West Africa grow cocoa beans that are more resilient to the adverse effects of climate change, in order to help boost their yields and income. It also focuses on using its local staff to monitor the prevalence of child labor practices in the region.

A boy who is forced to engage in child labor breaks cocoa with a machete in Ashanti Region, Ghana in 2012. (For editorial use only)(Copyright, ACE)(Kyodo)

ACE Vice President Tomoko Shiroki welcomes the move, albeit belatedly, among Japanese businesses to deal with the issue.

"They have finally begun to take action against child labor in the cocoa industry, but there has been interest in this issue in Europe and the United States since around 2000."

She said that companies working together will be an essential step in rooting out child exploitation in the industry, adding, "Consumer interest in Japan on the issue of child labor is growing, but it is still not widespread."

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