Lawsuit claims West African child labor produces favorite chocolate, government ignores issue.

Lawsuit claims West African child labor produces favorite chocolate, government ignores issue.

The Fight Against Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry

Cocoa Plantation

Child labor is a dark stain on the global economy, perpetuating cycles of poverty and exploitation. Despite efforts to eradicate this practice, some industries continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of child laborers. One such industry is the cocoa industry, which has long been plagued by reports of children working on cocoa plantations in West Africa, particularly in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. International Rights Advocates, a non-profit organization, has recently filed a lawsuit against major chocolate companies in the hopes of putting an end to this egregious violation of human rights.

The lawsuit brought forward by International Rights Advocates aims to enforce a 1930s era federal law that requires the U.S. government to ban products created by child labor from entering the country. The organization has accused Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security of ignoring extensive evidence documenting children cultivating cocoa destined for well-known U.S. candy makers, including Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and Cargill. Despite the pledge made by these major chocolate companies to eliminate child labor from their supply chains by 2005, they now claim that they will only eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2025.

“They will never stop until they are forced to,” commented Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director of International Rights Advocates. Collingsworth believes that the U.S. government has the power to end this abuse of African children by enforcing the law. However, CBP declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the protection of law enforcement sensitive and business confidential information.

The cocoa cultivation industry in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana has a long history of child labor. A 2019 study commissioned by the U.S. government and conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that 790,000 children, some as young as 5 years old, were working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast alone. Similar conditions were found in neighboring Ghana. Recognizing the severity of the problem, the U.S. Department of Labor stated in a 2021 report that children in Cote d’Ivoire are subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including in the harvesting of cocoa and coffee. The State Department echoed this sentiment in its recent report, stating that human traffickers exploit Ivorian and West African boys in forced labor in agriculture, particularly in cocoa production.

International Rights Advocates, in its pursuit of justice for child laborers, has sued several major chocolate companies over their use of child labor in harvesting cocoa beans. Their previous case before the Supreme Court in 2021 was unsuccessful, but they remain undeterred. The group argues that companies have used excuses like the inability to trace the origin of cocoa to avoid addressing this issue. Former Senator Tom Harkin, who led a push for legislation to reform the industry, stated, “They just won’t do it because it will cost them money.” Harkin emphasized that Americans are often unaware that the chocolate treats they consume are linked to child abuse, whether it be in the chocolate bars, the chocolate syrup, or the chocolate chip cookies they bake.

The World Cocoa Foundation, which represents major cocoa companies, has claimed a commitment to improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their communities. Chocolate giant Hershey, one of the companies implicated in the lawsuit, asserts that it does not tolerate child labor within its supply chain. However, other companies like Cargill, Nestle, and Mars did not respond to requests for comment, though their websites describe their efforts to end child labor in cocoa plantations.

While the fight against child labor in the cocoa industry is vital, the Ivory Coast government has voiced concerns about the potential consequences of banning the importation of cocoa. They argue that such a measure would devastate the nation’s economy. Terry Collingsworth, the labor advocate who brought forward the lawsuit, empathizes with this concern, stating, “We don’t want to un-employ the whole country. We just want children replaced by adults in cocoa plantations.”

Collingsworth’s determination to advocate for vulnerable children led him to investigate working conditions in the Ivory Coast firsthand. While there, he witnessed children laboring in the cocoa industry and documented their plight through photos and videos. International Rights Advocates submitted a 24-page petition to CBP in 2020, which included photographic evidence and interviews with children as young as 12 who described their experiences of withheld wages and deception by recruiters.

Despite International Rights Advocates’ efforts, CBP failed to take any action on their petition, according to the lawsuit. This failure to address the issue has prompted the organization to take legal action, fighting for the rights and well-being of the countless children exploited in the cocoa industry.

Child labor should have no place in the production of the goods we consume. The fight against this abhorrent practice requires the collective effort of governments, companies, and consumers. By holding companies accountable for their supply chains and enforcing laws that prohibit products made with child labor, we can help bring an end to this injustice. It is our responsibility to ensure that the products we enjoy are not tainted by the exploitation of innocent lives.