Child slavery lawsuit shines light on multinationals as accessories to human rights abuses

By Mohammed Maoulidi


In an interconnected world where communications have never been more sophisticated and penetrating, it is proving difficult for companies to claim that they do not know details of their businesses, even in remote areas. In our information age, ignorance is no longer an excuse; it is not even a plausible defence. Sooner or later malpractices are exposed. Company profits are then compromised by government fines and lost business. The risks of exploiting Africa are proving costlier and harder to avoid, as the chocolate child labour scandal of 2015 illustrates.

But what can be done against multinational corporations that abet human rights violations by turning a blind eye to abuses which boost their profits? Choosing not to act with due diligence regarding the origin of products from Africa or doing such investigations haphazardly or half-heartedly can be costly to a firm. Public relations problems are one result, sometimes leading to a buyer backlash in the form of a consumer boycott. Expensive global brands can have their expensively-maintained lustre tarnished. Customer loyalty suffers if buyers distance themselves from companies for which crimes against humanity are committed for the sake of company profits, whether these companies profess to be ignorant of such crimes or not. Consumers know that by purchasing products tied to human rights abuses they are condoning such abuses.

In late September 2015, a lawsuit filed against the world’s three top chocolate makers for involvement in human rights abuses in Africa illustrated another form of consumer protest that is also costly for multinationals.

This article is extracted from the November 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and is authored by ACM analyst Mohammed Maoulidi.

A woman tends to cocoa beans harvested in a village near the Kakum National Park in central Ghana. Photo courtesy Francisco Veronesi/Flickr
A woman tends to cocoa beans harvested in a village near the Kakum National Park in central Ghana.
Photo courtesy Francisco Veronesi/Flickr

Enforcing corporate responsibility with a lawsuit

Three individuals in California moved by the plight of slave children on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire filed a class action lawsuit against the world’s three top chocolate makers for employing child slaves as part of their supply chain. Hershey and Mars, both American firms, and Nestlé of Switzerland are charged with knowing that these children work on their behalf.


In response, Hershey released a statement in the industry publication, Confectionary News, stating, “We are committed to the ethical and responsible sourcing of all of our product ingredients and have no tolerance for illegal practices, including children used as forced labour in cocoa farming.” While laudable as a sentiment, the expression of intolerance for human rights abuses is not the same as the outright denial of culpability of abuses taking place in Hershey’s supply chain. The statement also notes that the “charges are not new,” which seems intended to diminish the charges’ legitimacy. The world became aware of the plight of Ivorian child slaves put to work for the American and Swiss chocolate makers through a 2010 documentary film. The lawsuit against the companies was filed, the plaintiffs state, because nothing was subsequently done and time had come to press the matter in court.

Nestlé also responded in Confectionary News stating that the firm will contest the case. Mars released a statement noting the company’s dedication to improving the lives of cocoa farmers in West Africa and Nestlé says the company has a US$ 100 million action plan to end child slavery in West Africa. Again, while such initiatives are necessary for companies accused of exploiting impoverished people, these matters are separate from the lawsuit charges. Hershey also sounded the public relations clarion by noting, presumably for a public ignorant of the situation, the “long-term challenges in cocoa-growing countries that many stakeholders, including NGOs, companies in the cocoa supply chain and the US government have been working diligently together to address for a number of years. Poverty is a fundamental issue in the cocoa-growing region of West Africa, and companies across the entire cocoa supply chain have been actively involved in substantial initiatives to improve the economic, social and labour conditions in these cocoa-growing communities.”

For their sake, the principal suppliers of the West’s chocolate candies and sweets had better not be knowingly using child slaves. The allegation will be proved or disproved in court. The lawsuit states, “America’s largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labour, much less child slave labour, anywhere in their supply chains. 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.”


Blaming slavery on the poverty of West Africa instead of on slavery’s beneficiaries

The 2000 film Slavery: A global investigation, produced by the United Kingdom (UK) studio True Vision Entertainment, is now 15 years old. Activists say the conditions on West African cocoa plantations that generated the most shock and comment when the film was released have not been eradicated but worsened. In 2002, the US Congress reacted to the chocolate child slave scandal by creating a law that would compel chocolate makers to submit to mandatory inspection of their supply chain before they could qualify for a compulsory “Slave Free” label to be placed on their product. The US law would call slavery by its name, and not “the worst form of child labour” as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) euphemistically describes it. Just before the legislation was about to be passed in 2005, Hershey and other firms proposed self-policing. Chocolate industry critics say that in the 10 years that have since passed, self-regulation has not happened. The critics scoff at Hershey’s protestation that no one at the giant worldwide company had ever heard that child slavery is common on cocoa plantations. If they had not known, why had they not known? Was the ignorance wilful, a case of a multinational ensuring that the company can distance itself from the criminal activities of its suppliers to keep input prices low and profits high?

The documentary film exposed the suffering that young boys endured as they were enslaved at cocoa plantations, locked away as if in jail, beaten as a matter of course, malnourished and, of course, made to perform unsafe, backbreaking work in horrendous conditions without pay. The boys were denied education and family contact. In the face of such stories, the denials of the chocolate industry that it knew nothing seem implausible and calculated. The crusading rage to end such abuse and bring justice to perpetrators is wholly absent from the reactions of Hershey and other chocolate makers. Their attitudes, expressed again in reaction to the California lawsuit – that West Africa is poor and such matters as child slavery are par for the course until conditions improve – is both cynical and cruel. More than the goodwill of NGOs and the investigations of the US government cited by Hershey in its press release commenting on the California lawsuit are required to change conditions in West Africa. Decades of economic growth are needed to elevate masses of West Africans from poverty. This will only happen if multinational firms insist on living wages for all who work in their supply chains.

Shockingly, especially given that the chocolate companies have now been aware of the reality of child slavery in their supply chains for 15 years, the number of children working in West Africa’s cocoa industry in 2013/14 was at an all-time high of 1.4 million, an increase of 51% over the number working in 2008/09 according to the Payson Center for International Development of Tulane University in the US. Nearly all, or 1.1 million, were child slaves, a 10% increase from 2008/09. Meanwhile, the US$ 90 billion-a-year chocolate industry cannot agree on how to proceed with an anti-child slavery drive in Africa.

This article is extracted from the November 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and is authored by ACM analyst Mohammed Maoulidi.


Multinationals must know through on-the-ground engagement the provenance of their inputs

The stakes are high in the lawsuit accusing the chocolate makers of knowing that child slaves harvest their cocoa beans. Monetary damages are being sought. More damaging to the companies is that if successful, the lawsuit will compel the chocolate makers to print a notification on their product packaging stating that the contents were made with child slave labour. Every Kit-Kat bar, M&M bag, Snicker’s wrapper and Hershey’s Kisses package would bear this Scarlet Letter certain to send conscientious consumers fleeing from sweets purchases.

The US Congress is famous for the way that its representatives can be bought off by a corporate lobbyist, particularly gun manufacturers, with campaign donations. A US court of law may not be similarly bribed. Whether the three chocolate-making giants win or lose the suit, questions regarding their culpability have been raised in the public’s mind that can only be addressed through more on-the-ground activism. Efforts made through NGO proxies involving themselves in cocoa-producing regions at the behest of the lawsuit defendants will not be seen as credible if they are perceived to be working for the chocolate makers. All investigations and interventions must be carried out by governments and independent international agencies, with some chocolate industry financing for the effort. Helping to rid West Africa of child slavery is the type of activity in which all multinationals in Africa should engage as the price of doing business on the continent.



(1) Mohammed Maoulidi contributes market and conflict analyses for ACM. Based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he is sought as a consultant on African economic and political matters by corporations and NGOs.