The Sweet Taste of Slavery

By Cassandra Bockstael
Everyone loves chocolate. Europeans consume half of the three million tons produced yearly. But the success of chocolate has a dark side. While western kids and adults are enjoying its sweet taste, the reality is different for the children in Africa who harvest the cocoa.

According to Anti-Slavery International, child slavery differs from child labour because it entails an additional dimension: the enforced exploitation of a child for their labour for someone else’s gain.

“Two million children work in cocoa plantations and around 500 000 of them work in abusive conditions”

Currently, 10 million children are in slavery: a number twice the population of Denmark. 70% of the world’s cocoa production comes from only two African countries: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Two million children work in cocoa plantations and around 500 000 work in abusive conditions. Children are often injured by working with machetes lifting and carrying heavy bags, and becoming exposed to pesticides, all for little or no money.  

Despite some efforts, the initiatives taken by companies to avoid child slavery in the supply chain remain weak, and not all countries are likely to act. For example, the EU has not yet taken concrete action, despite being the world’s largest chocolate consumer. Does this mean there is no hope for children enslaved in cocoa farms?

“They claimed to be kidnapped as children to be forced to harvest and cultivate cocoa. They were kept in locked rooms, worked for long hours without breaks and were subject of physical abuses by the persons in charge”

Some recent developments coming from the United States bring some hope. It all started in 2005 when three Malian people filled a complaint against Nestlé, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland before the Californian federal court. They claimed to be kidnapped as children from Mali to Cote d’Ivoire to be forced to harvest, and cultivate cocoa. According to the plaintiff, they were kept in locked rooms, worked for long hours without breaks and were subject of physical abuses by the persons in charge. The three Malians accuse the companies, buyers from these cocoa farms, of failing to protect and prevent their arbitrary detention and torture under constitutional, federal and international law. The case was brought before the court using the Alien Tort and Claims Act (ATS). The three companies mounted a strong resistance.

“Then started the judicial saga”

The ATS allows any foreigner to sue in the United States for tort against a U.S. law or international treaty binding on the United States. It does not matter where the harm occurs, and it applies to both natural and legal persons (with the exception of the government).

Then started the judicial saga. The case was dismissed twice, once because the Court did not accept the claim under the ATS and a second time because the plaintiff did not establish that there was a sufficiently close linked between the behaviour of the company and the wrongdoings in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. Both times the plaintiffs appealed, and both times they won.

Finally, on the 23rd of October 2018, the claim was allowed to proceed under the ATS. The courts decided firstly that there was a universal prohibition of slavery, which makes the ATS applicable. Secondly, the offer of compensation coming from the companies to the cocoa farms in question sufficiently link the headquarters with the wrongdoings.

“This case sets an important precedent in addressing child slavery”

More than 10 years after starting the proceedings, the plaintiff will finally have a judgment which could potentially lead to the conviction of enormous multinational companies for overseas wrongdoings. Usually, when it comes these types of cases, it is extremely difficult to obtain a judgment for several reasons.

First, stating the obvious, transnational corporations have resources that often plaintiffs or associations representing them cannot afford. These companies try to have lengthy and costly procedures that are nothing for them, but cost too much for ordinary people.

Second, even though big companies adopt codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility policies (eg. Nestlé), these stop at a certain stage of the supply chain. Most of the time, human rights violations occur at a level of the supply chain which is not covered by any CSR or code of conduct.

Third, it is important to note that the judgment will be issued by a U.S. Court. Usually, companies try to have the lawsuit in a country that would be beneficial to them. Some countries have more flexible legislation, while other are more advantageous for companies because they have no strong courts or a lack of resources to investigate claims.

This case set an important precedent in addressing child slavery in cocoa farms supplying large transnational companies. Following the decision to proceed, IRAdvocates (the organization in charge of the case) decided to also take Mars and Hersey to Court. In addition, another law firm decided to sue the same companies for failing to disclose the use of child slavery in the chocolate product. These cases shed light on an important issue, and if the judgment is in favour of the plaintiffs, they will emphasize the responsibility of transnational corporations for violation of human rights, especially in case of slavery. In any case, the cases will raise public awareness of the issue of slavery in chocolate products. Hopefully, people will start thinking about it the next time they purchase their sweet temptations.

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After obtaining her bachelor in law at the Catholic University of Louvain, Cassandra graduated in 2018 from the University of Antwerp (LLM). She mostly resided in Antwerp but also travelled to Sydney and Geneva to obtain her major in Human Rights and Sustainable Development. She is mostly interested in issues related to children and armed conflict, terrorism and transitional justice.