A public civil action filed in US federal court ten days ago has everything to turn the gastronomic pleasure – that of eating chocolate – into a political and indigestible debate.
The lawsuit aims to dock seven of the world’s largest chocolate makers for links to child trafficking and child labor exploitation in West Africa, often under conditions similar to slavery.
Nestlé, Mars and Hershey, as well as Cargill, Mondelez, Olam and Barry Callebaut, were cited in the play by the human rights organization International Rights Advocates (IRA).
The complainant represents eight young Malians who claim to have been kidnapped in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and forced to work on cocoa plantations in degrading and dangerous conditions, such as the use of machetes and the application of pesticides.
Côte d’Ivoire is one of the largest cocoa producers in the world, alongside Ghana. Together, the two African countries account for around 60% of world production of cocoa, the main raw material for chocolate.
This is the first time that the chocolate industry has been the target of this type of action in the American legal system. Another lawsuit, filed in 2005 against Nestlé and Cargill, was taken to the US Supreme Court in December 2020. But the civil lawsuit now argues that its plaintiffs represent “thousands of other children and youth” in this region of Africa.
The text also argues that such an action could not take place in Mali – the homeland of the victims now ruled by a military junta after a coup in August 2020 – because there is no local legislation. which would allow them to seek redress against international companies. The document further alleges that the cause could not also occur in Côte d’Ivoire, “where the justice system is notoriously corrupt and unable to respond to the cry of foreign children against the large chocolate companies that generate income for the country” .
According to the IRA, for decades the globalized chocolate giants have benefited from a system of child exploitation, supported by a regime similar to that of slave labor, to increase profit margins without the respective responsibility.
“Since 2001, these companies have not been able to escape the overwhelming evidence of their trading relationships with the cocoa plantations that enslave children,” said Terrence Collingsworth, executive director of the IRA.
That year, Collingsworth recalls, some of those companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, an international agreement led by Democratic senators in which companies recognized the problem and pledged to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. of their production line by 2005.
Twenty years later, this reality has hardly changed and the companies’ commitment to change these human rights violations has been extended three times at their request.
“Now they say they will reduce the use of children in slavery by 70% by 2025”, underlines the director of the IRA. “In doing so, these companies are providing substantial support to slave farms, prompting the continuation of this horrific practice.”
The efforts of companies to identify the origin of their raw materials and to monitor compliance with certain parameters and good practices for their harvest seem to be a distant goal.
A study commissioned by the US Department of Labor at the National Opinion Research Center (Norc) at the University of Chicago found that 1.56 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 worked on cocoa plantations on the Coast. Ivoire and Ghana between 2018 and 2019. They represent 43% of children and adolescents in the two West African countries.
The study also assessed efforts to reduce child labor in the cocoa sector in the region and concluded that areas that were sort of multiple interventions had improved the data. However, the increase in the involvement of children in the cocoa sector in areas not covered by the interventions has been such that the balance is negative.
According to the Norc study, the prevalence of child labor in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana increased by 14 percentage points between the 2008-2009 and 2018-2019 biennia, during which time the cocoa production increased by 62%. The number of children involved in hazardous activities on these cocoa plantations increased by 13 percentage points during the period.
Mars, producer of the popular M & Ms, claims to be able to trace the origin of 33% of the cocoa he uses in his chocolates to the farms where it is harvested.
An investigation by the American newspaper The Washington Post calculated that in 2019, the global chocolate industry generated 103 billion dollars in sales per year and that in 18 years, the sector had invested just over 150 million dollars in the fight against child labor and degradation.
Researched, all the companies declared having condemned child labor and degrading work, as well as the human rights violations associated with it, and highlighted the initiatives to combat this type of exploitation of children carried out by each of them. they.
Hershey, in a statement, said he was< engagé à mettre fin à cela >> and believed that the effective elimination of these human rights violations >> and the treatment of the underlying problem of poverty, which is the cause of these activities, requires significant investments. An intervention in the West African region, not before the courts “.
Nestlé, also by memo, indicated that it was committed “to combating child labor in the cocoa supply chain and addressing its root causes within the framework of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and through collaborative efforts “. And he said that “child labor is a complex global problem. Dealing with this problem is a shared responsibility.”
Mondeléz, a producer of Toblerone, said he does not comment on the ongoing processes, but has been working for years “tirelessly to help solve the problem of child labor. Our approach focuses on prevention, monitoring and remediation, with an emphasis on education as a.. critical facilitator.
Olam said he has “zero tolerance for forced or degrading labor in his production line.”
Cargill, in a statement, said it was “accelerating our efforts to tackle the root causes of child labor.”
Barry Callebaut said the problem of child labor “is complex and multifaceted”, linked to structural problems such as poverty and lack of access to basic services, such as water and education. And he said he maintains a producer code with parameters that condemn child labor.
Mars, in a note, said she is not commenting on the lawsuits and is working “with governments, suppliers, farming communities and others to try to prevent and address these issues in the supply chain. cocoa “.
Experts believe that the global chocolate industry has made little progress in achieving better traceability of its production chain and that structural actions will be needed to reverse the economic forces that are dragging children in one of the world’s most difficult regions. poor people of the world towards hard work in the cocoa plantations.
According to the text of the lawsuit filed in the United States, the complaint filed by former child slaves wants “not only to expose the crimes in the cocoa sector but also to dismantle the source of their significant profits: cheap labor. acquired through child trafficking. They also hope that by speaking publicly about the horrors of child trafficking and slavery, they can better educate the public, consumers and members of government ”.
The boys claim they boarded a bus in Mali, deceived by promises of well-paid work, and ended up across the border in Côte d’Ivoire in cocoa plantations where they worked without pay and were subjected to poor food and shelter.
Chocolate industry reports believe the sector will undergo changes in 2021 due to increased consumer awareness of what they choose to eat based on ethical and sustainability parameters.