Some of the world’s largest chocolate companies are facing legal action for allegedly aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of thousands of children on cocoa farms in their supply chains.
Eight children who claim they were used as slave labor on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast have named Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey, and Mondelēz as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC. According to The Guardian, this is the first time a class action of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court.
The plaintiffs, all of whom are originally from Mali and are now young adults, claim that they were forced to work without pay on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast. The lawsuit filed by the human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRA) on behalf of the eight former child slaves, reportedly seeks damages for forced labor and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Citing research by the US state department, the International Labour Organisation, and Unicef among others, the class action alleges that the plaintiffs' experience of child slavery is similar to that of thousands of other minors.
The companies have also been called out for actively misleading the public in their 2001 promise to "phase out" child labor as part of the voluntary Harkin-Engel Protocol. Since the original deadline for achieving the commitment by 2005 was not met, the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry body to which all the defendants belong, now aims to achieve the target by 2025.
In the lawsuit, all eight plaintiffs say that they were recruited in Mali through trickery and deception before being trafficked across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. They claim that they were forced to work there – often for several years or more – without pay, travel documents, and no clear idea as to where they were or how they could get back to their families.
The class action also states that the plaintiffs, all of whom were under 16 years of age at the time of their recruitment, worked on farms in major cocoa-producing areas of the west African country where the defendants allegedly have "dominant" influence.
The defendants have been accused of being responsible for developing the entire cocoa production system of Ivory Coast and the case documentation maintains that, as key participants in this “venture”, the defendants either knew or should have known about the "systematic" use of child labor.
Such abuses against children represent a "humanitarian disaster," said the court papers, as they contribute to Ivory Coast's ongoing poverty in addition to being morally repugnant.