Several Malian individuals have sued seven American chocolate companies for?abetting and supporting illegal child labor in C?te D’Ivoire.
The plaintiffs are?former child slaves?who were trafficked from Mali to harvest cocoa beans in C?te D’Ivoire. They escaped the plantation and returned to Mali. As laborers, the children are not paid and are constantly subjected to physical abuse by farmers or traffickers. As there are no laws in Mali to aid the plaintiffs in seeking damages or civil remedies against foreign exporters, they brought their claims under US law, specifically the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the Alien Torts Statute.
The defendant companies are Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Hershey, Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, and Olam. In 2001, they signed an international agreement called the Harkin-Engel Protocol. It is the chocolate industry’s pledge to reduce child labor in Ghana and C?te D’Ivoire. The suit alleges that these companies have been falsely purporting to be forwarding humanitarian initiatives while working with syndicates within C?te D’Ivoire to secretly continue producing cocoa using child labor. The complaint raises statistics from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago showing that the number of enslaved child laborers working in C?te d’Ivoire and Ghana have gradually increased to reach over 1.56 million, implying the efforts purported to have been made by the defendants were bogus misrepresentation.
The suit also states that the companies have violated the International Labour Organization Convention No. 182?that was ratified by the US in 1999. The convention imposes a minimum age requirement and prohibits laborers from working in hazardous conditions. Child laborers are forced to use toxic pesticides and machetes without any protective equipment on a daily basis.
International Rights Advocates (IRAdvocates), the organization representing the plaintiffs, has also filed a separate suit under the Alien Torts Statute that grants US courts jurisdiction for claims brought by a foreign national. Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director of IRAdvocates, stated:
[I]n filing this new case we want these companies to know we will use every possible legal tool available to make them stop abusing child slaves. We call upon the companies to work with us solve this problem, rather than spend millions in legal fees to fight an uncontestable fact – the cocoa industry is dependent upon child labor.
Several of the companies have declined to comment on the pending litigation. Nestlé stated that the companies have internal policies to prevent child labor, and that the lawsuit does not help progress global efforts to combat the exploitative practice. Cargill declined to make any specific comments but affirmed that it has no-tolerance policies for child labor.