Slave Free ChocolateInterview with Ayn Riggs
I had the pleasure of speaking to Ayn Riggs, founder of Slave Free Chocolate, on the issue of slavery, human trafficking and free trade. I love how she is willing to talk to one person, thirty or one thousand and be just as enthusiastic. She understands that every person is worth speaking to and is very passionate about her work. She is certainly a woman of action as much as advocacy. She opened my eyes to this subject, and I hope she will do the same for you.
What inspired you to get into the fight?
Around 2006, I was in Europe and I heard our chocolate was tied to child slavery. According to Ratifications of C182, it’s normal to work on parents’ farms, but there should be schools, clinics, and [the children] shouldn’t lift more than 50 pounds. They can’t work with harmful pesticides; can’t be working with dangerous tools.
When I came back to the U.S., there was only one site that addressed the issue at the time [even though] the BBC had done at least four different programs on it.
I said: Someone needs to know about this. This problem seemed to speak to me because there was no one doing anything about this at all. There were a few labor organization groups that had this on their radar, but as far as general advocacy, there was nothing.
[So] I started Slavery Free Chocolate in 2006-2007 with my daughters who were in middle school at the time. My 8th grader would take a popular song and make a slide-movie thing, [and] we reached out to church organizations to write letters, [and reached out] to schools.
How long have you been working to bring awareness to this?
I think I may have inspired middle schoolers to do what they can do, which is awesome. What I have [also] seen grow – and don’t think I inspired it – in 2009 there was nothing on human trafficking. Now there is.
What do you think about awareness?
Over a million children are still falling under the radar. Awareness is good, but without action, it is pointless. Trafficking is still going on. [In fact] the dent we have made has been miniscule.
In our little western world, we feel that advocacy is enough. It is a piece of the pie, but you can’t put your head on the pillow at night and go ‘oh my God, I’ve changed the world.’ I don’t want to discourage people from being advocates for their causes, but there has to be a plan for going down the road.
[For example], the Faire Trade movement/program does not have any budget or structure to take care of these 1.8 million children in West Africa, and it shouldn’t because it’s not their mission.
[Additionally], only about 5% of all cocoa beans are purchased under a fair trade system.
So what do we do?
Fair Trade is important but it is not the solution for these kids. If they don’t go into cocoa, they will go into something else.
Many of [them] are going into rubber, domestic slavery; they are being trafficked. INTERPOL intercepts 200 kids on any given day. Now what do you do with these kids? Where do they go?
How did you start? What were your first steps after you started the website and created the videos?
We made cards to carry into grocery stores. We basically started to tell everyone about the problem. We talked to the local suppliers [and] reached out to schools – especially middle school social studies teachers looking for interesting projects. Children can vote with their voice and their dollar. All the barriers are now erased that used to exist. Anyone can do something with the connectivity and Internet we have today.
During the interview, Ayn shared a lot about the Harkin-Engel Protocol and some of the reactions she has had. This is a summery of that conversation.
In 2001, Engel was reading the New York Times and saw an article on chocolate and slavery. He put a bill forward that required chocolate to be stamped with no slavery here (kind of like dolphins and safe tuna), and the bill was passed.
Before it went to the senate floor, the candy companies learned about it and were disturbed for obvious reasons. They hired the 2 most powerful lobbyists in D.C., and before the bill got to the senate floor, it was pulled out.
There was a great deal of compromise that followed; something new was drawn up; deadlines were introduced; and each of the milestones in 2005, 2008 and 2010 brought no change. Of course, nothing was being funded.
Tulane University was hired to be watchdogs and to write 4 reports on the progress of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. The first three reports ended with an F, and the fourth with about a 4% change. This was all done over the course of 10 years. In other words, the protocol was a failure.
When Ayn was invited by the Georgetown Lecture Fund to speak on this issue, she was met with real opposition from both Harkin and Engel’s offices – despite this being their bill. Ayn says:
The Harkin and Engel offices tried to stop this speech, but the university refused [although they eventually compromised in the end due to the pressure]. [What was the] compromise? She get’s to speak, but she won’t be recorded and she gets no media coverage.
What was the reason? They needed to get re-elected.
When asked about these failures and solutions, Ayn had several opinions.
Boycotting the chocolate companies is not necessarily the solution, because if they had a massive outreach to do just that, they would simply pull up and head off to another place like Indonesia, leaving these people in West Africa in the same impoverished situation to fend for themselves.
It’s about getting the candy companies to go back to the accountability they signed in the first place. Take care of the problem. But of course, no political group will touch the issue.
One company indicated that by 2017, “one of our chocolate bars will be fair trade” [but] we can’t wait 200 years for everything to be fair trade. We need to take care of the children now and not 200 years from now. We either need to actually follow the Protocol or we need to introduce new legislation.
[On the bright side], there are two lawsuits that are going on that are pivotal for this issue. The current status of one (which is being appealed after having been in anti-slavery’s favor) and the hopeful end of the other, might cause American companies to review how they do things.*
What is the interest in ending chocolate slavery?
It is very difficult to get any press on this issue and I am not sure why – even though chocolate slavery mirrors diamond slavery.
The companies say “one day we are going to have fair trade chocolate” and people hear “chocolate is now fair trade.”
We need to have the chocolate stamped. Unfortunately, to get that stamp, these companies have a lot of paperwork to go through, [making ending trafficking less appealing].
The companies are not saying that slavery doesn’t exist; they are saying they are not liable. They actually used Zyklon-B as one of their examples of why they aren’t liable. Can you believe that!
What’s your greatest need as an agency?
Connections and the media to pick up more of this story. I am willing to do interviews and stories. I need people willing to write about this.
If you are interested in writing about this issue, creating a documentary, or doing something that hasn’t been brought to light, please connect with Ayn Riggs by going to Slave Free Chocolate’s website.
There is hope amidst the turbulence of West Africa. Although there this might barely dent the surface of what is going on, Chloe Grant of C.R.E.E.R. has begun something to help the escaped slaves (street children). Please look for an upcoming article/interview on C.R.E.E.R.
Being a mother is what inspired Ayn Riggs to become an activist in the realm of worst forms of child labor, trafficking and slavery. When she found out about the situation in the cocoa fields of West Africa, she was not only appalled but was a newly divorced woman with two young teen age girls to raise on her own. Becoming and activist in this issue allowed her to teach her daughters the values connected with compassion and service. Eight years later, Slave Free Chocolate has taught several teens and young adults that one doesn’t need to be hired by an NGO after college to help make the world a better place. Globalization allows any one at anytime to push of their sleeves and get going. Ayn Riggs lives in Kansas City Mo. and is available for interviews, speeches and many forms of collaboration. She fully believes that since this issue is tied to an industry that has admitted accountability and promised responsibility, it should be a win in the fight against modern day slavery. You can reach her and her team through Slave Free Chocolate.