Child welfare advocates filed a federal lawsuit in the United States last Tuesday asking a judge to force the Biden administration to block imports of cocoa harvested by children in West Africa that can end up in America’s most popular chocolate desserts and candies.
The lawsuit, brought by International Rights Advocates, seeks to have the federal government enforce a 1930s era federal law that requires the government to ban products created by child labour from entering the United States.
The non-profit group says it filed the suit because Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have ignored extensive evidence documenting children cultivating cocoa destined for well-known US candy makers, including Hershey, Mars, Nestl? and Cargill.
The major chocolate companies pledged to end their reliance on child labour to harvest their cocoa by 2005. Now they say they will eliminate the worst forms of child labour in their supply chains by 2025.
“They will never stop until they are forced to,” said Terry Collingsworth, International Rights Advocates’ executive director. He added that the US government has “the power to end this incredible abuse of African children by enforcing the law.”
Spokespeople for CBP declined to comment on the suit, which was filed in the US Court of International Trade. When asked more generally about cocoa produced by child labour, the federal agency said it was “unable to disclose additional information or plans regarding forced labour enforcement activities due to protections of law enforcement sensitive and business confidential information.”
Cocoa cultivation by children in Cote d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, as well as neighbouring Ghana, is not a new phenomenon. Human rights leaders, academics, news organisations and even federal agencies have spent the last two decades exposing the plight of children working on cocoa plantations in the West African nations, which produce about 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa supply.
A 2019 study by the University of Chicago, commissioned by the US government, found 790,000 children, some as young as five years old, were working on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations. The situation was similar in neighbouring Ghana, researchers found.
The US government has long recognised that child labour is a major problem in the Ivory Coast. The US Department of Labor reported in 2021 that “children in C?te d’Ivoire are subjected to the worst forms of child labour, including in the harvesting of cocoa and coffee.”
The US State Department in a recent report said that agriculture companies in the Ivory Coast rely on child labour to produce a range of products, including cocoa. The department said this year that human traffickers “exploit Ivoirian boys and boys from West African countries, especially Burkina Faso, in forced labour in agriculture, especially cocoa production.”
To try to force companies to abandon cocoa produced by child labour, International Rights Advocates has sued some of the world’s large chocolate companies over the use of child labour in harvesting cocoa beans. It lost a case before the Supreme Court in 2021. Several others are pending.
Pressured by lawmakers and advocates, major chocolate makers in 2001 agreed to stop purchasing cocoa produced by child labour. That goal, experts and industry officials say, has not been met.
“These companies kept saying, ‘We can’t trace it back’. That’s BS,” said former Senator Tom Harkin, who led a push for legislation to reform the industry, but ended up agreeing to a protocol that allows corporations to regulate themselves. “They just won’t do it because it will cost them money.”
Harkin said Americans don’t realise the treats they hand their children originate with child abuse.
“It’s not just the chocolate you eat, it’s the chocolate syrup you put on your ice cream, the cocoa you drink, the chocolate chip cookies you bake,” he said.
The World Cocoa Foundation, which represents major cocoa companies, said it is committed to “improving livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their communities.”
A Hershey spokesperson said the company “does not tolerate child labour within our supply chain.” Cargill, Nestl? and Mars did not respond to requests for comment. Their websites all describe their work to end child labour in cocoa plantations.
Ivory Coast officials have said they are taking steps to eradicate child labour but blocking imports of the nation’s cocoa would devastate the nation’s economy.
“We don’t want to unemploy the whole country,” said Collingsworth, the labour advocate who brought Tuesday’s lawsuit. “We just want children replaced by adults in cocoa plantations.”
Collingsworth was in the Ivory Coast investigating working conditions when he noticed children chopping through brush and harvesting cocoa. He pulled out a phone and took video and photographs of the boys and girls at work. He also stopped by a nearby processing facility and took a photos of burlap sacks with labels of US companies.
International Rights Advocates decided to petition the CBP to block imports of the cocoa, filing a 24-page petition in 2020 asking the agency take such action. The petition contained what it said was photographic and other evidence detailing how the companies were violating the law.
Collingsworth said his group also provided CBP with interviews with children as young as 12 who said their wages were being withheld, and that they had been tricked by recruiters into working long hours on a false promise they would be given land of their own.
CBP failed to take any action on the petition, the lawsuit alleges.