International Rights Advocates (IRA), a Washington DC human rights firm, claimed the eight former child slaves say they were forced to work without pay on cocoa farms in the west African country, in legal proceedings started on Friday 12 February.
It is the first time that a class action of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court.
The plaintiffs, who are now young adults, are seeking damages for ‘forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress’, IRA claimed.
Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director of IRA, said: “These companies have a long history of violating the law and participating in a venture in Cote d’Ivoire that relies upon child slaves to produce cheap cocoa.
“In 2001, these companies negotiated and signed the 'Harkin-Engle Protocol' in which they explicitly promised consumers and regulators they would stop using child labour by 2005. Instead, they have given themselves numerous unilateral extensions of time and now claim that by 2025 they will reduce by 70% their reliance on child labour. Rather than make progress, their use of child labour is actually getting worse.”
Collingsworth’s claims are backed up by a 2020 NORC study at the University of Chicago and funded by the US Department of Labor, which concluded that 1.56 million child labourers were involved in cocoa production and harvesting in the cocoa growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the 2018/19 growing season, an increase of 14% since a 2015 study, and 1.48 million child labourers engaged in hazardous work during this period.
The case documentation, seen by ConfectioneryNews, maintains the defendants are responsible for developing the entire cocoa production system of Cote d’Ivoire – and IRA claimed that “they either knew or should have known about the ‘systematic’ use of child labour”.
Companies respond to claim
Most of the companies involved in the lawsuit were quick to respond with prepared statements to the media.
A spokesperson for Barry Callebaut told ConfectioneryNews: “Any form of child labour has no place in our supply chain. We strongly condemn forced labour, slavery and all practices that exploit both adults and children or expose them to harmful or hazardous conditions.
“Child labour, which, according to the International Labor Organization, is widespread in African agriculture, occurs largely on family farms and is defined as children doing work when too young or work that endangers them.
“The lawsuit brought forward by International Rights Advocates concerns the rare practice of trafficking children to work on farms, which the Ivorian and Ghanaian governments, together with industry, are actively combating.
“Barry Callebaut has committed to eradicate child labour from its supply chain by 2025. Every year we publish our progress against this target in our Forever Chocolate Plan. See our annually updated human rights statement for more details.
“We require our suppliers to follow our supplier code, which clearly states our expectations regarding product safety and quality, sustainability and business ethics.”
Cargill said: “We are aware of the filing and while we cannot comment on specifics of this case right now, [the company wants] to reinforce we have no tolerance for child labour in cocoa production. Children belong in school. They deserve safe living conditions and access to good nutrition.”
Nestlé said the lawsuit “does not advance the shared goal of ending child labour in the cocoa industry” and added “child labour is unacceptable and goes against everything we stand for. Nestlé has explicit policies against it and is unwavering in our dedication to ending it. We remain committed to combatting child labour within the cocoa supply chain and addressing its root causes as part of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and through collaborative efforts.”
An Olam spokesperson said the company has a zero-tolerance policy for forced or slave labour in their supply chain. “If we were to identify any instances, we would immediately take action which includes notifying the appropriate authorities,” it said.
A Mars spokesperson told the media: “We don’t comment on any possible pending litigation.” Mondelēz and Hershey did not responded at the time of writing this article.
The case is being brought in the US under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017. IRA is currently involved in a separate and long-running complaint filed under the Alien Tort Statute against Nestlé and Cargill.
“By giving themselves this series of extensions, these companies are admitting they are using child slaves and will continue to do so until they decide it’s in their interests to stop. Based on the objective record of 20 years of the failed Harkin-Engle Protocol, these companies will continue to profit from child slavery until they are forced to stop. The purpose of this lawsuit is to force them to stop. Enough is enough!
“Allowing the enslavement of African children in 2021 to harvest cocoa for major multinational companies is outrageous and must end,” said Collingsworth.
Citing research by the US state department, the International Labour Organization and Unicef, among others, the court documents allege the plaintiffs’ experience of child slavery is mirrored by that of thousands of other minors.
Fernando Morales-de la Cruz, founder Cacao for Change, said: "This lawsuit against the chocolate industry is about much more than the eight Malian citizens that were trafficked and exploited as child slaves to harvest cocoa.
"It is about the fact that the business model of the chocolate industry is cruel, exploitative and illegal because it exploits between 2.2 and 3 million children worldwide, besides exploiting millions of farmers and farmworkers, all to buy cocoa for less than one third of the real price.
"They must implement a transparent shared value system with compensation of at least US$ 0.10 per chocolate bar, this compensation would allow them to pay growers more than US$ 7,500 per ton of cocoa at the origin … three times the amount that the sector presently calls ‘fair’ and ethical’.”