Chocolate giants have been battling allegations of supporting child labor in cocoa farms for over a decade.
Consumers and nonprofit organization have repeatedly accused billion-dollar chocolate industry of sourcing cocoa from the farms that use forced child laborers. Every time, these confectioners manage to waddle their way through these claims, refuting such atrocities but probably still importing their products from the same sources.
Some of the companies, like Nestle, have publicly embraced protection of human rights as one of their core business principles, and have been vocal about child protection. However, according to a recent lawsuit filed against the company by California resident Elaine McCoy, the chocolate maker has not only failed to live up to its purported standards, it has also failed to disclose the truth to its customers.
The plaintiff alleges that the West African farms that Nestle buys its cocoa from forces young children to work for them.
McCoy is not the only consumer calling out the chocolate giant for its abuse, which several surveys and researchers have validated over the years. Two other consumers, Robert Hudson and Laura Dana have also sued Mars and Hershey respectively.
“America’s largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labor, much less child slave labor, anywhere in their supply chains,” the complaint reads. “These companies should not turn a blind eye to known human rights abuses...especially when the companies consistently and affirmatively represent that they act in a socially and ethically responsible manner.”
The plaintiffs have also accused the companies of false advertising and violations of California business and consumer laws. They have stated they would not have bought their products if they had known the truth, and that consuming their goods is akin to supporting child slavery – which might be technically true, but highly arguable.
Although the chocolate industry’s not-so-secret scandal has caused outrage for past 15 years, the recent lawsuits were filed after Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, released a report of child labor in West Africa.
The study estimated that 2.12 million child laborers worked in cocoa production in the 2013-14 cocoa harvest season in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire – the latter of which supplies its produce to the Swiss company.
While Ghana and the Ivory Coast are the world’s largest producers of cocoa, they are low-wage agricultural countries where average daily income is less than half a dollar. Farmers earn so little they cannot afford to pay adult workers, which is why they rely upon poorly paid or unpaid children to work for them.
Moreover, traffickers bring in most of these children from neighboring countries. So yes, buying their chocolate can be interpreted as supporting the atrocity, but the bitter truth is that most African countries don’t consider child labor an abuse.
More than 79% children in Ghana, between the age of 5 and 17, are currently working in cocoa farms – a fact that has been addressed repeatedly though not much has been done about it.
A couple of months ago, a separate class action lawsuit accused Nestle of knowingly using fish from a Thai supplier that uses slave labor for its cat food Fancy Feast. Following the uproar, the company announced plans to ensure that none of the chocolate in its iconic KitKat bars is made with child labor, but they did not specify any details.
If the chocolate industry really wants to “source their cocoa from sustainable sources,” they must work toward diminishing the problem instead of searching for farms that don’t enslave children – which would be a rare occurrence in West Africa.
Child labor and slavery will continue to persist in the region unless world powers take concrete steps to eliminate it from its roots.
Meanwhile, Nestle, which reported $100 billion revenue in 2014, and Hershey, which reported $7.1 billion, has stood by their positions that child labor is unacceptable and goes against everything the companies stand for.
However, Mars, the largest candy-maker in the nation with $18.5 billion in candy revenue in 2014, has not commented on the lawsuits as of yet.