My Three Reflections From The Recent Lawsuit Filed By Once Child Labourers Against Big Chocolate Brands

By Deeksha Sharma

No chocolate is sweet if it is exacted from forced labour and exploitation.

Recently, eight children have claimed that they were used as slave labour on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast and have launched legal action against the most renowned and biggest chocolate companies in the world. These companies are– Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey, and Mondelēz. The complaint has been filed in Washington by a human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRS) on behalf of the eight children.

The eight young adults are from Mali, as reported by The Guardian. They seek damages for “forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” when they were children.

Cocoa is the main ingredient in the chocolates that we all share love with. 45% of the world’s cocoa supply comes from the Ivory Coast. Sadly, cocoa production and its supply – like many other commodities – are found instances of linking to human rights violations, child labour, abuse and exploitation, low wages and often no payment, poverty, etc.

Though some of these major brands, like Nestlé and Cargill, have issued statements condemning the use of child labour in cocoa production, the news has highlighted yet again the urgency and need for greater transparency and surveillance over the supply chain. The World Cocoa Foundation, an industry body to which all the defendants belong, aims to end child labour and achieve the target by 2025.

While this news highlights once again the prevalence of child labour in its worst forms, especially in the production and in the supply chains of our favourite chocolate brands, there are three key reflections that we can make from it:

1. Survivors can be a resilient force to pursue justice, even when it is extremely challenging

We know that 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children, making them one of the most vulnerable targets of forced labour and human trafficking. Even so, children’s own autonomy and their agents for change can be inspiringly powerful. All eight children (now young adults) originally from Mali, are now seeking compensation for being pushed into forced labour. It is the first time that this kind of action has been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court.

Despite being just eight in number, these young adults have bravely confronted the big chocolate brands and sued them for their negligence towards recognizing and eliminating child labour in their supply chains. Needless to say, these survivors of child labour represent the unheard voices of the countless other children who are still the victims of child labour and obscured from plain sight.

2. Survivors’ agency to influence positive change is what we need more in the fight to end modern slavery

It has been alleged in the court papers that the eight plaintiffs (all under 16 years of age during the time of their recruitment) worked tirelessly on farms in the major cocoa-producing areas of the Ivory Coast.

All the eight plaintiffs have openly described the exploitation and abuse they faced. They explained how they were recruited through means of deception and were tricked prior to being trafficked across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. They further explained the abusive working conditions for many years – with no pay, no travel documents and not knowing their locations and being completely unaware of how to return back to their homes or to their families.

These plaintiffs are survivors and no more the victims of child labour. They have their own agency, their own autonomy and bravely exhibited courage to move to the court which signifies that survivors of trafficking can influence positive change in their communities. They become agents of change and a voice for other victims to break free from situations of slavery. Survivors of trafficking play a key role in helping not only those who have survived trafficking but also those who are still experiencing it.

3. Supply chains are complicated, and an in-depth understanding of supply chains is urgently needed

At HRC, we believe that majority of the brands would never want to benefit from slave labour in their supply chain. However, as the supply chain tends to be extremely complicated and murky, the majority of the brands are only able to trace to their Tier 1 or Tier 2 suppliers. Not being able to have a full picture of the full supply chain, especially the suppliers that are close to where the core ingredients are extracted or produced, is dangerous, and can be viewed as the accomplice of the wrongdoings.

This lawsuit against major brands once again demonstrates that brands have the active moral and legal responsibility to build an in-depth understanding of their supply chain, and ensure no misconducts are allowed. Simply claiming ‘we don’t know’ is increasingly unacceptable to the consumers, lawmakers, and most importantly, victims in the supply chain. We know that an estimated 25 million people are trapped in forced labour globally, and a large portion of consumer goods may potentially link to modern slavery somewhere in its supply chain.

At HRC, together with our team of local consultants, we have succeeded to help stakeholders to gain clarity over the supply chain and craft systemic solution to reduce risks of human rights abuse in the supply chain. Contact us if you would like to further discuss or understand our work.