Nestlé & Cargill v. Doe Series: Corporate Liability, Child Slavery, and the Chocolate Industry – A Preview of the Case

December 31, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the consolidated cases of Nestlé USA, Inc. v. Doe I and Cargill Inc. v. Doe I, which was argued before the Supreme Court on Dec. 1. The introduction to the series and all other articles can be found here.]

The world’s chocolate supply is undergirded by rampant practices of child labor under extremely hazardous conditions and, in some cases, slavery. According to the U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana combine to produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa. These plantations rely heavily on the labor of 2 million children working in hazardous conditions. Thousands of these child laborers are trafficked or forced into the work and may not be compensated for their labor, conditions amounting to slavery.

The international community has struggled to address this issue for years. In 2001, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and then-Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) drafted legislation to require a “slave free” label for chocolate products sold in the United States. The chocolate industry lobbied successfully to defeat the proposal and instead negotiated the Harkin-Engel Protocol. This international agreement was signed by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association; the World Cocoa Foundation;  Engel and Harkin, and then-Senator Herbert Kohl (D-WI); an ambassador from Côte d’Ivoire; representatives of various NGOs; and leaders of eight major chocolate corporations, including Nestlé (at pages 3-9, 16). It sought to compel the chocolate industry to eliminate the worst forms of child labor and forced labor as defined by International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 29 and 182. (The latter defines the “worst forms of child labor” as subjecting children to all forms of slavery and practices similar to slavery, trafficking, prostitution, pornography, the production and trafficking of illicit substances, and work that will harm their health, safety, or morals, which includes hazardous forms of agricultural work.) However, the industry failed repeatedly to meet the benchmarks introduced by the Protocol, in part because it relied on self-regulation.

In 2010, responding to the inefficacy of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, representatives of the United States, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire released a Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. This public declaration committed the signatories to reduce child labor in the Ghanaian and Ivorian cocoa industries by 70 percent by 2020 and pledged $10 million from the U.S. Department of Labor and $7 million from the cocoa industry to achieve that goal. In support of the framework, the ILO entered into a partnership with eight companies in the chocolate and cocoa industry, including Nestlé and Cargill, to contribute $2 million toward the eradication of child slavery.

Despite these efforts, the problem is only worsening. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2020 report identified a 14 percent increase in the prevalence of child labor in Ghanaian and Ivorian agrarian households from 2009 to 2019. This leap reflects the simple fact that business is booming: the report found that cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana increased by over 60 percent over the same period. In light of these well-documented abuses and the lack of progress by the industry to eradicate child labor, victims have sought redress against U.S. corporations for their complicity in these human rights violations, culminating in the Nestlé/Cargill litigation.

To read the full story by Chris Moxley on Just Security: Click Here