Washing powder, plastic jugs, pants, shirts, nails and chocolate. All familiar items – with no immediate common denominator other than being everyday items many of us are in close contact with daily, in one form or another. But, do we really know from where they originate? Do you know where the shirt you are wearing was manufactured and where the cotton it is made from was picked? Did you check whether the people who made your shirt, and who were involved in every production stage, were living under acceptable working conditions? That they were paid and did not suffering maltreatment?
Most likely, you do not know any of this, nor are you doing anything about it. Or, if you actually do know, you are one of a very, very select few consumers who research the origin of items. But, even if you know that the shirt originates from Bangladesh, perhaps even the factory where it was made, even the most intrepid contemporary archaeologist would not be unable to dig up information on who exactly made the shirt. Or that person’s working conditions.
Slavery and confectionery. Think back to the last time you ate chocolate. Do you even remember? When was it, where were you, what did you pay? Did you enjoy the flavour and how long did it take you to consume the sweets? Many will not be able to put a location or time on such consumption: it enters the body fast and exits the head again just as quickly. However, if you do actually recall it, we could ask: did you consider whether someone else’s suffering could be hiding behind your own, brief enjoyment? If you did not, you ought to watch The Chocolate Case. In 2002, Dutch journalist Teun van de Keuken, film maker Maurice Dekkers and TV-producer and reporter Roland Duong happened to find a small newspaper notice, stating that children are used as slaves in chocolate manufacturing. They were surprised that this news was allocated such small amount of space in the paper, and decided to investigate. Why was this not big news across the line? Surely, it was not correct? But, they did not need to investigate long before realising that indeed it was all true – and much more extensive than the newspaper space given to the notice.
Accountability. However, more than this happens. Teun van de Keuken wants to do something about the horrors and decides to contact human rights lawyer Michiel Pestman. Together they plan to report van de Keuken for accessory to child labour. Because, as the lawyer argues, if you know that children are used as slaves in the manufacturing of a product, you have to shoulder some of the responsibility if you despite this knowledge continue to still enjoy these sweets. The situation is very interesting: not only does it show how an everyday sweet turns out to be the result of slavery and maltreatment, but simultaneously also a small piece in the systematic suppression of hundreds of children – pretending to be an enjoyment, an innocent tasting experience. When van de Kauken is made to be responsible, a precedent is set, which in principle can penalise other consumers too, if he is. Or, if this does not happen, at least chocolate-consumption will be accompanied by the knowledge that child slaves have contributed to its sweet flavour. Making the sweets taste anything but. However, the problem was that in order to bring about a trial – one of the slaves involved had to be a witness.
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