Child Slavery on Cocoa Farms in Cote d’Ivoire Lawsuit

With Nestlé USA and Cargill, Inc.
By Ethel Howley, SSND

EXPERIENCE

Six African men are seeking damages from Nestlé USA and Cargill, alleging that as children they were trafficked out of Mali, forced to work long hours on Ivory Coast cocoa farms and kept at night in locked shacks. Their attorneys argue that the companies should have better monitored their cocoa suppliers in West Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown and child labor is widespread. They further said, "International norms prohibiting child slavery and forced labor are indisputably specific, universal, and obligatory. The norms apply directly to private parties, including corporations."

These former child slaves are seeking compensation from these two U.S. corporations which maintain a system of child slavery and forced labor in their Ivory Coast supply chain. This is as a matter of corporate policy to gain a competitive advantage in the U.S. cocoa industry.

Nestlé USA and Cargill have responded that they, too, deplore child slavery and trafficking, and that they have taken steps to eradicate such practices among their suppliers. In court, Nestlé USA indicated that they firmly believe that traffickers deserve punishment, but this case is different.

They insist at a Supreme Court hearing that courts in the United States are the wrong forum for the Malians’ complaint. The applicable law permits such cases against individuals but not corporations. The view of the companies is that such cases ought to be filed, not against the corporations, but against the traffickers and farmers involved in Mali and Ivory Coast. All of us who purchase chocolates and invest our retirement funds in the food industry, expect our companies to develop policies and practices that demand human rights protections to be in place and followed. We count upon their verifying their supply chains at all levels down to the farms in West Africa. 

Probing the arguments presented, the U.S. Chief Justices zeroed in on whether the companies’ practices really amounted to "aiding and abetting” child slavery. They posed the question - Is simply buying cocoa from these farms enough for prosecution? 

ANALYSIS

The proliferation of global supply chains in recent decades has led to recurring debates over the responsibility of multinational companies to monitor the adherence of their far-flung suppliers to human rights and environmental standards. 

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have pushed back against lawsuits such as the one against Nestlé and Cargill, arguing that they are burdensome and could discourage investment in developing economies. U.S. and foreign companies have been sued 150 times during the past 25 years under a statute that permits foreign nationals to sue in the United States for international law violations.

U.S. Reports, the official records of the U.S. Supreme Court, indicates that much of the world’s chocolate supply relies on more than 1 million child workers. What makes the legal cases against the companies particularly complex is the difficulties investigators face in connecting any child laborer with a specific company. Human rights advocates say the companies should be held responsible because child labor arises in part because corporations refuse to pay enough for cocoa and have yet to fully institute systems for tracing cocoa beans to specific farms. 

REFLECTION

Some smaller chocolate companies pay higher prices for the cocoa beans and take extra care to eliminate child labor from their cocoa suppliers. Those added costs can make it difficult for the producers of “ethical chocolate” to compete against the companies using cocoa produced with child labor. 

We continue to see a lack of progress despite promises by the companies to eradicate child labor. Poverty is still the daily reality for virtually many West African cocoa farmer families; child labor persists; and old growth forests continue to be cleared to make way for cocoa production.

Indeed, cocoa prices are critical to the debate which began in July 2005 when the men from Mali filed their class action suit in California. Almost every year since, different courts have rendered briefings, hearings, and appeals.  The Supreme Court was expected to consider a case, submitted by Yale Law School faculty and students, in December 2020. The appeal is pending adjudication before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, a cocoa price war appears to be breaking out between the multinational companies and the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana, which regulate cocoa exports. 

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights declares that all “business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”

Love Gives Everything prompts an SSND response to current situations around us, including child labor. “At this critical turning point in the sacred history of creation and humanity, we have heard our deep desire to trust and dare.”  Will we be indifferent bystanders to the practices of the corporations whose products we enjoy and with whom we invest our assets? Will we engage with the managers responsible for their human rights practices, and with them bring about change– elimination of child labor?

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