Former child slavery victims have successfully reopened a case alleging one of the world’s largest food makers was aware of the use of child slaves to harvest cocoa products in West Africa.
The landmark case is attempting to hold global food makers to account for buying products from areas rife with forced labour.
The use of slaves, particularly children, is endemic through West Africa’s cocoa industry, which supplies about two-thirds of the world’s consumption.
The plaintiffs, who were originally from Mali but claim they were trafficked to the Ivory Coast, initiated US court action in 2005 against three companies believed to be aiding and abetting human rights violations.
They allege Nestlé SA, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co and Cargill Inc were aware of widespread child slave labour when they purchased cocoa from the Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire.
The plaintiffs, who claim they were trafficked to the cocoa fields and held captive, beaten and forced to work long hours without pay, said the companies had offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers to ensure the cheapest source of cocoa.
Although the case was dismissed in 2010, a decision to refuse the dismissal by the US Supreme Court on January 8 means it will now return to the federal court.
The revival of the case brought the “long saga … an important step closer to resolution”, International Rights Advocates executive director and representative in the case, Terrence Collingsworth, told Reuters.
“On behalf of current and former child slaves in the cocoa sector in West Africa, the plaintiffs hope their case will help to end this inhumane practice,” he said.
‘No place for child labour’
Over recent years, Nestlé has worked to assess the conditions at cocoa farms, a spokesperson told The New Daily.
They were considering appealing the US Supreme Court decision, and maintained the 2010 dismissal “was right”.
“Nestlé is committed to following and respecting all international laws and does not tolerate illegal or discriminatory labor practices,” the spokesperson said.
“Child labour has no place in our supply chain.
“We welcome the attention paid to child labour, as a better understanding of the problem through new data and insights will enable us to further strengthen our efforts.
“We are determined to eradicate the problem of child labour in our supply chain and we have made this a priority for our company with actions such as our [Child Labour Remediation and Monitoring System].”
Media reports in the early 2000s thrust West Africa’s prolific child slave labour problem onto the world stage.
A 2005 report suggested about 284,000 children were employed under the practice, with about 200,000 of them in Côte d’Ivoire, drawing links with chocolate production and beans exported from the country throughout the world.
Cocoa beans are the Ivory Coast’s largest export, accounting for about 33 per cent of world production, but poor incomes means some turn to slave labour to alleviate costs.
International Labor Rights Forum campaigns director Abby McGill said child slave labour remained rife within the cocoa industry in West Africa, and that Nestlé was among the companies continuing to buy these products.
“A recent study show[ed] that 2.1 million children in Ivory Coast and Ghana [were] still involved in forced labor in the cocoa industry,” she told Deutsche Welle.
“[Work to alleviate the problem was unsuccessful] because they are not focused on improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers, who are so poor they are unable to provide workers with a living wage.”