Image: Bill Wegener (Unsplash)

In Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana combined, 1.5 million children under the age of 15 work in the cocoa industry. Many of these children are sold to these farms as bonded labours from Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso. These children work long hours, they use dangerous tools without training nor protective gear. They are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals, and the risk of diseases and infections. These children are further threatened with physical violence if they attempt to escape or refuse to work.

The unethical practices within the cocoa supply chain have been acknowledged and are not newly exposed. 20 years ago, eight of the largest chocolate manufacturers including Nestlè, Mars and Hershey signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, an agreement aimed to address abusive child labour practices in the cocoa-growing areas of Western Africa . A new report by Macquarie University shows that even after two decades, they have not addressed this dire issue. Child labour in cocoa production in key areas of Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana have increased by 14% between 2009 and 2019.

Nestlè has admitted that there are ethical issues in their own cocoa supply chain, but they have also become the recipient of Corporate Social Responsibility awards. This significantly questions the importance placed on corporate social responsibility globally and demonstrates the extensive distance that still needs to be travelled before the cocoa global supply chain is ethical. 

Nestlè has promoted its Cocoa Plan initiative in Cote D’Ivoire which aims to improve tree-growth, build schools, educate women, and help farmers increase their income. However, this project only impacts 30% of its supply chain.

Nestlè United States and Cargill are currently in court defending a lawsuit brought against them by six former child slaves who are seeking compensation from these two cocoa manufacturers. These former labourers claim that they were trafficked and forced to work on cocoa farms in Cote D’Ivoire. The ruling is only expected in June 2021. 

During the oral arguments, the former child slaves set out to prove that the 1789 Alien Tort Stature (ATS) is enforceable against these US (United States) chocolate manufacturers. The ATS allows foreign nationals to lodge civil suits against US and foreign defendants for acts committed in violation of international laws. Although it is difficult to establish the corporation’s criminal intent and sufficient involvement in these illegal activities, the defendant corporations were challenged with arguing their immunity when they facilitate a crime against humanity, child slavery.

If the Supreme Court rules against the corporations, not only the global cocoa prices and industry but every American food company will be impacted by the decision. The ruling would greatly increase the pressure for corporations to monitor their international suppliers because it would create precedent for further claims against manufacturers who knowingly incorporate unethical suppliers in their supply chains.

Conversely, if the supreme court rules for the corporations, it risks creating a safe haven for corporate abusers. The companies have argued that the ATS applies only to individuals and not corporations. If the corporation wins this case, the ATS, which has been a vital human rights tool in previous activist cases would be diminished of its usefulness, creating a gap in international human rights law for protecting victims and holding corporations accountable for their part in human rights abuses globally. 

The chocolate manufacturers have been given two decades to tackle the unethical activities within their supply chains. The supreme court now has the opportunity to find two of the major corporations liable for their part in child slavery and thus force them, and other corporations in the industry, to take further steps to recreate their supply chains and turn away from unethical practices. 

Laura has a degree in BPolSci International Studies from the University of Pretoria and is currently completing a level 4 NALP paralegal diploma. She hopes to complete her honors in International Relations and pursue a career in the field of Public International Law and Human Rights. Laura is one of the permanent members of the writing staff at The Art of Politics.

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