A human rights group has filed a law suit on behalf of eight Malian men who say they were trafficked across the border to the Cote D'Ivoire and forced to harvest cocoa for one or more of seven popular companies, including Mars, Nestlé and Hershey.
"Enough is enough!" IRAdvocates Executive Director Terry Collingsworth said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "Allowing the enslavement of African children in 2021 to harvest cocoa for major multinational companies is outrageous and must end."
The class action lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In addition to Nestlé, Hershey and Mars, the lawsuit also names Cargill, Mondelēz, Barry Callebaut and Olam. It marks the first time that a class action lawsuit of this type has been brought against cocoa companies in a U.S. court, The Guardian reported. The eight men, who are now young adults, seek damages for forced labor and compensation for the fact that the companies inflicted emotional harm and improper supervision while getting rich at their expense.
The World Cocoa Foundation, to which all of the defendants belong, spoke out against child labor but argued that the responsibility for ending it fell to the government of the Côte d'Ivoir.
"The cocoa and chocolate industry has zero tolerance for any instances of forced labor in the supply chain," World Cocoa Foundation President Richard Scobey said in a statement reported by Business Insider. "The government of Côte d'Ivoire has a comprehensive legal framework in place to pursue, arrest and bring to justice those who traffic children or adults."
The individual companies gave similar statements decrying child labor but arguing that the solution involved multiple stakeholders acting together, and not targeted lawsuits. But IRAdvocates sees the lawsuits as a means of forcing companies to actually be a part of the solution.
This is the second lawsuit that IRAdvocates has filed against major chocolate brands over child labor issues. Another, filed against Nestlé and Cargill under the Alien Tort Statute, was argued before the Supreme Court in December of 2020. During the arguments, the companies said they were not liable for child slavery under international law, IRAdvocates said.
"In 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," Collingsworth said in a statement. "We call upon the companies to work with us [to] solve this problem, rather than spend millions in legal fees to fight an uncontestable fact – the cocoa industry is dependent upon child labor."