Scandal of child slaves behind your Easter eggs

THEY toil beneath a baking sun, stagger under heavy loads and, with small hands, wield dangerous machetes. For the child slaves who produce the cocoa beans, life is far from sweet.

While millions of British children celebrate Easter Sunday by tearing through foil wrapping to get to their chocolate eggs, more than 12,000 of their African peers will continue their miserable work in the modern slave trade.

Major chocolate manufacturers such as Nestl and Cadbury were asked yesterday to certify their products with a "traffik-free" guarantee to prevent consumers unwittingly supporting child slave labour. Stop the Traffik, an anti-slavery coalition backed by Amnesty International and the charities World Vision and Tearfund, want firms to do more to prevent the abuse of child workers.

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According to the International Labour Organisation, 12,000 children have been trafficked from countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast, where they work long hours for no pay and little food on cocoa plantations. Hundreds of thousands of other children help out on family farms in West Africa, often in hazardous conditions that put their health at risk, keeping them out of school, according to the charities.

The use of child labour is driven, says Stop the Traffik, by the abject poverty of farmers, who are forced to seek cheap or free labour, and it is demanding more money from the multi-billion-pound industry to protect children. British chocolate-makers said the industry was investing in a region-wide certification scheme to tackle the issue.

Steve Chalke, the chairman of Stop the Traffik, said: "These youngsters come from a background of poverty, and are even knowingly sold by their parents sometimes. Often, what will happen is the parents are starving, they're poor, they have nothing, and somebody comes along and says, 'I'll take your son, he'll work on my farm and I'll give you some money'. They think, 'We'll get money, so we can eat and our son gets a job'. They don't know what he's going to is a living hell. They are being hit, they have been taken from their mothers, they effectively have no freedom, no escape, there's no pay, little food, no education - and we sit here munching through our chocolate bars."

The international cocoa market is worth about 2.5 billion a year. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is the world's leading producer, supplying about 43 per cent, and some 30 to 40 per cent of cocoa used to make chocolate in the UK comes from the Ivory Coast, according to the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association (BCCCA).

Alison Ward, of the BCCCA, said manufacturers in Britain were contributing about 8 million a year to developing certification and monitoring schemes that should cover some 50 per cent of cocoa-growing areas in Ivory Coast and Ghana by July next year.

The BCCCA is also supporting "farmer field schools", which aim to educate producers about boosting their yield and labour practices as well as social concerns.