Wednesday 17th February 2021
Eight victims against chocolate multinationals
Do child slaves harvest our cocoa?
From Frauke Niemeyer
The fact that the cocoa in chocolate from Nestlé and other corporations is harvested by child slaves is an often-raised accusation. But now it is to be decided in the US in court whether the chocolate multinationals are responsible for it.
Eight young Africans against the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers: Nestlé, Mars, Hersheys and some other food companies could soon have legal consequences for processing cocoa from West Africa that is said to have been harvested under inhumane conditions. The lawsuit in a US court against the global players was brought by a team of lawyers representing eight young men who are said to have been abducted as children from their homeland of Mali to Ivory Coast, where they had to harvest cocoa as slaves.
The plaintiffs are concerned with more than just compensation for their own suffering. “If the court finds that corporations benefit from slavery, it could pass a ruling that will prohibit them from bringing cocoa into the country that has been harvested by slaves,” said Terrence Collingsworth, one of the attorneys in Washington, DC. in conversation with ntv.de. The lawyer sees the process as an opportunity to put Nestlé and Co. under specific pressure. “This is not a show trial to get the injustice public,” says Collingsworth. If the court decides in the interests of the plaintiff, “the corporations would get into real economic difficulties”. It is estimated that almost half of the cocoa processed globally comes from the Ivory Coast.
The targeted food multinationals’ chances of avoiding the trial seem lower since a similar case landed in the US Supreme Court in early December. This lawsuit was first filed in 2005 and then ran through all instances of the American judicial system for years. A representative of Defendants Nestlé and Cargill said in a telephone hearing before the US Supreme Court that companies cannot be held responsible for crimes against humanity under international law. That is only possible with individuals. According to the US intelligence service Bloomberg, even conservative Supreme Court justices were skeptical of this argument.
73 million child slaves worldwide
The defendants apparently seem advised to argue with such a fundamental legal opinion, since the crime as such has been documented in many ways. To deny the inhumanity in West Africa’s cocoa industry would sound absurd, given the amount of evidence in the press and academia. In the past few years, Unicef and the US Department of Labor have also commissioned studies that seriously document the suffering on cocoa plantations. The International Labor Organization recently estimated that 73 million children around the world do dangerous work under duress.
As early as 2000, Nestlé, Mars, Hershey and five other corporations in the USA came under severe pressure because of the inhumane conditions in their supply chains. A law that would have obliged them to declare their products “free from slave labor” could only be prevented with a voluntary commitment. The corporations agreed to rid the entire production chain of illegal activities within five years, i.e. in 2005. According to human rights monitors, however, hardly anything happened except that the corporations repeatedly postponed their self-imposed deadline for the abolition of slave and child labor. It is currently 2025.
The Malians’ legal team is very clear: the companies “lied when they promised to stop using child slaves. They have not done anything serious since”. Now the plaintiffs are hoping that the court “can order the companies to ultimately implement some of the measures that are known to work in the fight against exploitation,” said lawyer Collingsworth. First and foremost, it would probably be about paying the cocoa suppliers a fair price for the goods. Many plantation owners in Ivory Coast do not earn enough from the cocoa they deliver to ensure the survival of their own families.
With no idea where they were
In the indictment, the eight Malians report their personal fates – one of the men was lured with promises in his home village at the age of eleven, brought across the border and then kept as a slave for two years without any payment. Some of the eight describe that they were isolated, had to work long hours a day, with machetes or pesticides, without protective clothing. All were held for several years without a clear idea of where they were exactly.
The key question in court in the end will be: Have the world-famous companies knowingly benefited from illegal child labor in West Africa, and is their connection with the US sufficient to pass judgment on crimes that did not take place on US soil? The lawsuit says yes, corporations have benefited from the low prices that their contractors would not have been able to call if they had to pay adult workers fair wages. The US companies have “dominant influence” in the region and are responsible for the development of the entire production system for cocoa in the Ivory Coast. They would have known or should have known that child labor is systematically used there.
Nestlé, meanwhile, said the charges would not advance the “common goal” of eliminating child labor in the cocoa industry. Child labor is “unacceptable and runs counter to everything we stand for”. One hope of the eight plaintiffs and their lawyers is that the multinationals will change direction before the verdict will be pronounced in the upcoming trial, which they do not expect in three years at the earliest. “Instead of spending millions of dollars on lawyers,” says Collingsworth, “the corporations could also say: We are now really fixing what we have been saying for years. We always have hope.”