Former Child Slaves Suing Chocolate Companies For Allegedly Knowingly Profiting Off Their Labor
About 50 percent of the world's cocoa is produced in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, and 1.6 million children are involved in harvesting it. Despite the fact that, in 2001, Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars signed a pact promising to eradicate child labor in the industry by 2005, the number of child workers has actually increased by 62 percent since 2008, according to a report by the research group NORC at the University of Chicago. And a not-small percentage of those children are slaves, children who trafficked from all around Africa to work long hours in the cocoa fields and are beaten if they don't meet their quota or try to escape. For the most part, chocolate companies do the plausible deniability dance with regard to this abuse, because how are they supposed to know how their own supply chains work?
In a new class action lawsuit against chocolate companies Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz, eight former child slaves are seeking compensation, alleging that the companies knew damn well what was going on and "knowingly profited" from child slavery, violating their 2001 promise to stop using child labor.
The plaintiffs in the case are all originally from Mali and were trafficked from there to Côte d'Ivoire when they were under the age of 16, then forced work in the cocoa fields.
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 of actively misleading the public in their 2001 promise to "phase out" child labour. The original deadline for achieving the commitment, made as part of the voluntary Harkin-Engel Protocol, was 2005. The World Cocoa Foundation, an industry body to which all the defendants belong, now aims to achieve the target by 2025.
In the 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.
Yep, that's pretty clearly slavery. No other word for that.
One of the plaintiffs in the suit was trafficked from Mali when he was only 11 years old, and worked for two years without pay. Another has cuts all over his body from machete accidents. The children worked 14-hour days and were barely fed. They were isolated, either kept alone or put with other children who spoke different dialects (this was a common tactic used to discourage unionization in United States sweatshops in the early 1900s).
During field work for this case, the plaintiffs' legal team say that they routinely found children using machetes, applying chemicals and undertaking other hazardous tasks on cocoa plantations that were producing for one or more of the defendants.
As well as being morally repugnant, such abuses against children represent a "humanitarian disaster" as they contribute to Ivory Coast's ongoing poverty, the court papers state. The widespread use of child slavery is also credited by the plaintiffs for causing "long-term mental and physical trauma".
The idea that these cocoa manufacturers just have no gosh darn idea about all the slavery happening, that they don't know they are profiting off of the abuse of children, seems ridiculous. They vaguely claim to be doing something about it, but in decades, the problem has only gotten worse.
If you are not already screaming, here is Nestlé's statement on the lawsuit:
Nestlé said that the lawsuit "does not advance the shared goal of ending child labor in the cocoa industry" and added, "child labor 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 labor within the cocoa supply chain and addressing its root causes as part of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and through collaborative efforts."
Oh, fuck them. Former child slaves asking for compensation for their work "does not advance the shared goal of ending child labor in the cocoa industry?" I mean. Good lord, I know Nestlé is evil, but that is cold.
The fact is, if we really wanted to make damn sure companies like these were not using child labor, child slave labor or forced labor of any kind, we could. We could make a law requiring supply chain transparency for every single product sold in the United States. If you can't prove you didn't use child slaves, you can't sell your shit here. If that means we don't have chocolate for a while, so be it. I'm sorry, but children's lives matter more than a goddamned Kit-Kat bar and if we can't say that, then fuck us, as a country.
And let me just say — there is absolutely no question that if the trafficked children were white, they would have figured this out by now.
This lawsuit is the right idea, and they should keep 'em coming. Because guess what? If using child slavery costs these more than not using child slavery, I assure you, they will figure out a way to only buy cocoa that is harvested by voluntary adult workers being paid a fair wage and given protective equipment.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse