A lawsuit filed Monday against major candy producers The Hershey Company, Nestlé, and Mars, Inc, alleges that some of the world’s largest chocolate makers are knowingly using child labor in Africa.
The American chocolate industry has long been accused of such offenses, but this lawsuit adds a new spin.
Besides seeking monetary damages for those who live in California and bought the companies’ chocolate, the plaintiffs want the packaging of the candy to say child slaves were involved.
“Children that are sometimes not even 10 years old carry huge sacks that are so big that they cause them serious physical harm,” one copy of the lawsuit reads. “Much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of child slaves.”
The class action suits seek both monetary damages for California residents who have purchased the chocolate and revised packaging that denotes child slaves were used. It’s a new approach to an old problem: the chocolate industry’s deep, dark, not-so-secret scandal. It’s been 15 years since the first allegations of child slavery in the chocolate industry caused national outrage. Will this be the final straw?
A Nestle spokesperson denied the allegations and told The Daily Beast that “child labor has no place in our cocoa supply chain.”
A Hershey spokesman citedsustainable farmer training programs the company has previously established and said the company “will invest another $400 million in the region by 2020 to reduce instances of inappropriate labor issues.”
And a Mars representative similarly denied the allegations in an official statement to The Daily Beast.
Chocolate is a product of the cacao bean, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of Western Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The cacao bean is more commonly referred to as cocoa, so that is the term that will be used throughout this article. Western African countries, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast, supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa. The cocoa they grow and harvest is sold to a majority of chocolate companies, including the largest in the world.
A child’s workday typically begins at six in the morning and ends in the evening. Some of the children use chainsaws to clear the forests. Other children climb the cocoa trees to cut bean pods using a machete. These large, heavy, dangerous knives are the standard tools for children on the cocoa farms, which violates international labor laws and a UN convention on eliminating the worst forms of child labor.Once they cut the bean pods from the trees, the children pack the pods into sacks that weigh more than 100 pounds when full and drag them through the forest Aly Diabate, a former cocoa slave, said, “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.”
Holding a single large pod in one hand, each child has to strike the pod with a machete and pry it open with the tip of the blade to expose the cocoa beans. Every strike of the machete has the potential to slice a child’s flesh. The majority of children have scars on their hands, arms, legs or shoulders from the machetes.
In addition to the hazards of using machetes, children are also exposed to agricultural chemicals on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Tropical regions such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast consistently deal with prolific insect populations and choose to spray the pods with large amounts of industrial chemicals. In Ghana, children as young as 10 spray the pods with these toxins without wearing protective clothing.
The farm owners using child labor usually provide the children with the cheapest food available, such as corn paste and bananas. In some cases, the children sleep on wooden planks in small windowless buildings with no access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms.
The first group to question the financial strategies behind the industry’s wealth was a British organization called True Vision Entertainment. In a shocking 2000 documentary titled Slavery: A Global Investigation, the group reported on the chocolate industry’s alleged connection to cocoa harvested by child slaves. The award-winning film opens on stick-thin adolescent boys in the Ivory Coast slinging hundred-pound bags of cocoa pods on their backs, followed by an interview in which the boys express their confusion over not being paid.
As of 2008, there were an estimated 225 million child workers worldwide, according to data published by the United Nations.