Several Chocolate Companies Face Child Slavery Lawsuit

Hazardous child labour is a significant and ongoing issue for chocolate manufacturers. In September 2001, some of the biggest companies in the cocoa industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol and pledged to abolish the use of exploitative child labour. Almost twenty years later, the use of child labour is still rampant in their supply chains. On February 12th, it was reported that the human rights group International Rights Advocates (IRA) has initiated a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of eight former child slaves, all from Mali.

This potentially landmark lawsuit is the first of its kind to be initiated against the cocoa industry in a U.S. court. The plaintiffs, all of whom are now young adults, are seeking damages “for forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” It is believed that the plaintiffs’ experience of child slavery reflects that of many other minors.

As stated in the lawsuit, the children were trafficked across the border to Ivory Coast after being lured in by what they thought would be paid work. There, they were used as slave labour in cocoa plantations. They had no travel documents, they were not told where they were, and they had no idea of how to get back home to their loved ones. Nestlé, Mars, Hershey, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Olam and Mondelēz have been named as defendants in the lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C.

Roughly 45% of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from Ivory Coast. Figures by the International Cocoa Initiative show that there are an estimated 1.56 million children in child labour in cocoa supply chains in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Out of this number, about 1.48 million children have experienced “hazardous child labour.” Cocoa production in West Africa has a long history of human rights violations, low pay, and structural poverty.

Case documentation maintains that the cocoa farms named in the lawsuit were not owned by the defendants. However, they are still being accused of complicity as they “knowingly profited” from child labour. Allegedly, the suppliers contracted by the defendants offered cheaper prices than if they had employed adult workers with appropriate protective clothing and equipment.

According to the lawsuit, as key participants in the cocoa production system of Ivory Coast, the defendants either knew or should have known about the “systematic” child exploitation that has been happening.

One of the plaintiffs was only 11 years old when he was approached by a local man in his home town of Kouroussandougou, Mali. He was offered work in Ivory Coast for 25,000 CFA francs (£34) a month, but, according to the lawsuit, the boy worked for two years and was never paid. He was often forced to apply pesticides and herbicides with no protective equipment.

As reported in The Guardian, field work for this case revealed that children were often found using machetes, applying chemicals and undertaking other dangerous tasks on plantations that were producing cocoa for one or more of the defendants.

Such clear violations of children’s rights are not only morally reprehensible, but they also “represent a humanitarian disaster as they contribute to Ivory Coast’s ongoing poverty,” as said by The Guardian. The plaintiffs maintain that the continued use of child slavery also inflicts “long-term mental and physical trauma” on victims.

While policy and industry actors look for ways to make the production and consumption of cocoa more ethical, there is still a long way to go. According to World Vision, 152 million children around the world are still in work that deprives them of their childhood. The UN has declared 2021 the International Year on the Elimination of Child Labour. As individuals, we can make a difference by consuming responsibly, raising funds, and demanding action from our governments. By working together, we have the power to strengthen and accelerate the pace of progress in the global movement against child labour.

Anita Mureithi