Workers across the cocoa industry in Ivory Coast have gone back to work after winning a strike action which brought shipments to a standstill at the beginning of January.
The strikers wanted to secure better pay and working conditions, and oust senior management in government agencies accused of severe malpractice.
Work resumed after the government conceded and raised wages, but unionists, and industry analysts, have warned that further strike action is highly likely if their demand for the sacking of the director general of the Coffee and Cocoa Bourse (BCC, which regulates the marketing and export of cocoa) is not met.
Towards the end of the industrial action, SYNASGFICC unionists at the BCC and other industry bodies blocked registration of cocoa shipments for export.The strike followed walkouts in early December, which were called off for negotiations which never happened.
Philippe Zohou Bi, deputy secretary general of the union representing staff at the BCC, said some staff who had initially scabbed by continuing to process some cocoa exports during the first three days of the strike had been physically stopped by union activists.
"We’re getting tougher and prevented the alternative (export) registration system which the BCC director set up near his office, from working," he said at the time. It's true that exporters could register (shipments) during the strike... but we barricaded the office where the computers are and chased out the workers using them." If the tactic is repeated in future, it could cause major problems for bosses who are anxious to get this year’s wares away on time.
Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, the largest producer in the world accounting for 40% of world production and selling to Mars, Kraft and Nestle among others, is highly controversial. The extremely profitable cocoa fields in the region have been a major source of funding both for the rebel armies in the north and the government in the south.
An investigation by anti-corruption organisation Global Witness found that in the most recent conflict, the civil war of 2002, $112m was illegally diverted towards war materiel by both sides from cocoa sales. Thousands died. Global Witness further allege that the two sides in the civil war, which recently signed a peace accord and are said to be disarming, are continuing to draw profit from the sector through embezzlement and corruption.
The war has undermined cocoa prices for farmers who until recently had been able to sell their beans direct to companies for a reasonable profit, but who are now reliant on buyers thanks to the destruction of he transport network, who are gouging them over prices. As a result, despite growing demand for cocoa and rising prices on world markets, farmers have been receiving less.
The $1.2bn industry has also come in for fierce criticism for its child labour practices, with a recent expose by a major newspaper tracking child slaves across the continent and finding that the number of enslaved could be as high as 12,000.
From Freedom Newspaper, written by Rob Ray