Eight children who claim they were used as slave labour on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast have launched legal action against the world’s biggest chocolate companies. They accuse the corporations of aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of “thousands” of children on cocoa farms in their supply chains.
Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRA), on behalf of eight former child slaves who say they were forced to work without pay on cocoa plantations in the west African country.
The plaintiffs, all of whom are originally from Mali and 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 the first time that a class action of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court. Citing research by the US state department, the International Labour Organization and UNICEF, among others, the court documents allege that the plaintiffs’ experience of child slavery is mirrored by that of thousands of other minors.
Ivory Coast produces about 45% of the global supply of cocoa, a core ingredient in chocolate. The production of cocoa in west Africa has long been linked to human rights abuses, structural poverty, low pay and child labour.
A central allegation of the lawsuit is that the defendants, despite not owning the cocoa farms in question, “knowingly profited” from the illegal work of children. According to the submissions, the defendants’ contracted suppliers were able to provide lower prices than if they had employed adult workers with proper protective equipment.
The lawsuit also accuses the companies – whose industry body is the World Cocoa Foundation – of actively misleading the public in the voluntary 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, characterised by the complainants as promising to phase out some child labour (“the worst forms”, in the protocol’s words). The original deadline for achieving certain standards was 2005. In 2010, a follow-up framework of action for Ivory Coast and Ghana spoke of aiming for “a significant reduction” in the worst forms by 2020.
In the legal claim, all eight plaintiffs describe being recruited in Mali through trickery and deception, before being trafficked across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. There, they were forced to work – often for several years or more – with no pay, no travel documents and no clear idea of where they were or how to get back to their families.
The court papers allege that the plaintiffs, all under 16 years at the time of their recruitment, worked on farms in major cocoa-producing areas of the country.
Q. Which of the following is/are the charges being levelled against the world’s largest chocolate companies?
I) Aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of children.
II) Actively misleading the public in the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, which promised to slowly phase out the worst forms of child labour.
III) Illegally running cocoa plantations on the Ivory Coast.