In the blistering heat, CBS News found children in Ghana as young as 5 years old using machetes nearly as big as themselves to harvest the cocoa beans that end up in some of America's most-loved chocolates. Our team traveled across Ghana's remote cocoa belt to visit small subsistence farms that supply the U.S. chocolate giant Mars, which produces candies including M&Ms and Snickers.
We found children working at each one of the farms — despite the company's vow to have systems in place to eradicate child labor in its supply chain by 2025.
Mars has also boasted about rescuing thousands of children, who are listed as beneficiaries of what it calls a robust monitoring system meant to keep children off cocoa plantations and in schools.
CBS News exclusively obtained copies of these lists from a whistleblower and was able to confirm that some of the listed children were still working in the fields.
Munira, 15, is one of those children. She has worked in the cocoa fields since she was 5 years old. Education is a luxury, with her school an hour-long walk away and transportation options expensive. Last year, her family harvested only one bag of decent-quality cocoa. A 140-pound bag of the product fetches only about $115.
Last year, field supervisors contracted by Mars visited Munira. They gave her a backpack and schoolbooks with the slogan "I am a child, I play, I go to school." But in the 18 months since that first visit, the family told CBS News no one had checked to see if Munira was, in fact, in school.
"I feel sad. I want to be, like, a medical doctor," Munira said. "But my family doesn't have money for school."
Her 12-year-old brother Gafalo also works in the fields, but longs to join his peers in the classroom.
A cocoa field supervisor who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity said "almost every data" used to make up the lists "is cooked... or is not accurate," adding that he had personally "made up lists before."
He and other supervisors told CBS News they were under pressure to produce names, often with only 24 hours' notice, and he said the companies never verify the information.
"Nobody has come back to check as to whether it's true or not," he said.
CBS News spoke with nearly a dozen children whose names were on those lists. None of them were in school, and none of them had been regularly monitored to ensure they were attending classes.
"No one came here, ever," one child told us.
In some cases, names on the lists were outright fabrications. CBS News visited a farm where according to a list there was a child who was no longer working in the cocoa fields. The list identified her as the daughter of the farmer, but she doesn't exist.
Only a third of the 300 students registered at one school visited by CBS News actually attend classes. All students said that they harvested cocoa either before or after school.
CBS News also visited a cocoa warehouse in Ghana that supplies Mars. An employee at the warehouse, who is not being named by CBS News, said child labor was "an offense" in the country, but he could not guarantee all the cocoa handled at the facility was produced without it.
"I can't say 100%," he told us.
Terry Collingsworth, a human rights lawyer in the U.S., has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit alleging consumer fraud against American chocolate companies including Mars. He has collected statements from Ghanaian children working for Mars suppliers, including young boys doing the backbreaking work in the fields.
CBS News witnessed one child nearly lose his fingers to a machete blade while hacking open cocoa pods.
"They're telling the public that we're rehabilitating this kid, and then they're cynically coming here and just checking a box and the kid is back working the next day," Collingsworth told CBS News.
In a statement provided to CBS News, a spokesperson for Mars said:
"We condemn the use of child labor. Despite our requests, CBS did not provide specific details of their investigation to Mars ahead of time in order for us to investigate claims of misconduct at the time of this report. We treat any claim of misconduct in our supply chain very seriously and we will thoroughly investigate once we have the necessary information and take appropriate action.
Our cocoa suppliers in Ghana have agreed to adhere to our robust Supplier Code of Conduct and we have also been clear that they must have a Child Labor and Remediation System (CLMRS) in place by 2025 that complies with the industry leading International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) standard. Over 65% of our cocoa supply in West Africa is already covered by CLMRS which is implemented by our suppliers on the ground, with audits conducted by certification bodies as part of Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certification requirements.
To be clear, we condemn the use of child labor. It has no place in our supply chain, and we are committed to helping eradicate it, which is why we have a robust Protecting Children Action Plan in place that is backed by a significant financial investment. We are also transparent in saying that we know that more needs to be done and we continue to work diligently with parties across the cocoa sector to further help advance respect for human rights in the cocoa supply chain."
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