Leading chocolate companies sued for use of child labour

Leading chocolate companies sued for use of child labour

LondonThe seven leading chocolate manufacturers are being sued by DC-based International Rights Advocates on behalf of eight children forced to work in cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.

Although eight children are named in the suit, Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz are accused of aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of thousands of children on cocoa farms in their supply chains. The use of unpaid child labour by the companies was exposed in a study conducted by ImpACT. The London-based think tank called on chocolate producers that source cocoa from the West African country, along with Ghana, to ensure that the plantations with which they contract do not have child labourers.

The plaintiffs are all young people brought to Ivory Coast from Mali. It is the first time a class-action suit of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a U.S. court.

It is the first time a class-action suit of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a U.S. court.

Ivory Coast produces about 45% of the global supply of cocoa, the core ingredient of chocolate. Cocoa production in West Africa has long been associated with human rights violations, structural poverty, low wages and child labour.

The central allegation in the lawsuit is although they do not own the cocoa farms in question, the defendants "knowingly profited" from the illegal child labour. The plantation owners, which contracted with the defendants, were able to offer lower prices than if they had employed adequately compensated and protected adult workers. The lawsuit also accuses the chocolate companies of misleading their customers in their 2001 pledge to phase out child labour.

All eight plaintiffs were under the age of 16 at the time they were recruited in Mali, then smuggled across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, where they were forced to work—often for several years or more—without pay, travel documents or even knowledge of ​​where they were and how to return to their families.

Several of the plaintiffs quoted in court documents reported receiving little food and working long hours. Often, they were left alone or isolated from other workers.

Nestlé responded that the lawsuit "does not advance the shared goal of ending child labour in the cocoa industry" and added that, "child labor is unacceptable and goes against everything we stand for. 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."

Olam officials said the company has a zero-tolerance policy for forced labour in its supply chain. "If we were to identify any instances, we would immediately take action, which includes notifying the appropriate authorities.”

However, ImpACT International says that regardless of the protestations, it is clear that the abusive use of child labour continues.

“At a time when the consumption of chocolate products is increasing worldwide, famous chocolate companies are importing cocoa fruit from farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana where children between 5 and 14 years old are employed,” said the think tank. “The children are exposed to harsh conditions that threaten their personal safety and are forced to carry out arduous work for 80-100 hours per week.”

Difficult economic conditions push families in Ivory Coast and Ghana to send their children to work on cocoa farms instead of school. 

ImpACT’s research revealed that thousands of children from neighbouring African countries are being smuggled to Ivory Coast to work in agriculture. Nearly two-thirds of the children living in cocoa-growing areas work for extended hours, under unfair working conditions, during which they receive insufficient food. They also experience physical violence or threats, especially if they try to escape. The research also found that most children working on West African farms are not paid.

Difficult economic conditions push families in Ivory Coast and Ghana to send their children to work on cocoa farms instead of school. ImpACT’s research concluded that companies involved in the use of child labour have not taken significant steps to address the problem.

ImpACT International calls on the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana to allocate funds to combat human trafficking and to set up more monitoring units near cocoa-growing areas. Furthermore, cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast must be closely watched and fines must be imposed on plantation owners who hire children below the legal age. In addition, to root out the problem at its source, free education should be provided to reduce the financial burden on poor families and thus reduce the incentive for child labour.

Chocolate manufacturers and marketers also must do their part to end child exploitation in West Africa by requiring full transparency in their supply chains and refusing to contract with plantations that use child labour.




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