• The International Rights Advocates, a human rights organization, is suing seven cocoa companies.
  • These companies include Nestle, Cargill, Mars, Mondelez, Hershey, Barry Callebaut, and Olam.
  • The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight Malian men who were trafficked and forced to harvest cocoa.
  • Visit www.BusinessInsider.co.za for more stories.

Human rights group International Rights Advocates has filed a federal class action lawsuit against mega chocolate makers like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey alleging complicity in child trafficking and forced child labour, the IRAdvocates announced Friday.

The IRAdvocates filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight Malian men who say they were forced to harvest cocoa in the Ivory Coast after being trafficked as children. In total, the lawsuit named seven major cocoa companies: Nestle, Cargill, Mars, Mondelez, Hershey, Barry Callebaut, and Olam. 

According to the IRAdvocates, the companies "benefit by continuing to profit from selling cheap cocoa harvested by child slaves, including the eight plaintiffs who filed this case."

The seven companies have had a "long history" of doing so in Cote D'Ivoire, according to the IRAdvocates.

In 2001, the companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which said they would cease using child labour by 2005, according to the IRAdvocates. But as time passed, the companies started giving themselves more leniency in regards to ending the use of child labour, the group says.

According to a study by NORC at the University of Chicago published in October 2020, 1.56 million children were used for cocoa production in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana for the 2018 to 2019 growing season. Of this, about 1.48 million children were put through "hazardous child labour." According to the study, this includes the use of sharp tools and agro-chemicals, carrying heavy items, and working at night or long hours. 

"By giving themselves this series of extensions, these companies are admitting they are using child slaves and will continue to do so until they decide it's in their interests to stop," Terry Collingsworth, IRAdvocate's executive director, said in a statement. "Based on the objective record of 20 years of the failed Harkin-Engel Protocol, these companies will continue to profit from child slavery until they are forced to stop."

The lawsuit was filed based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which allows trafficking and forced labour victims to sue the companies using such tactics. 

How the companies have responded

A Nestle spokesperson told Insider in an email statement that child labour "goes against everything it stands for," and noted the company's policies against child labour use and its "dedication to ending it." 

"This lawsuit does not advance the shared goal of ending child labour in the cocoa industry," the Nestle spokesperson wrote. "Child labour is a complex, global problem, and tackling this issue is a shared responsibility. All stakeholders - including governments, NGOs, communities, and the broader cocoa industry - need to continue to address its root causes to have an impact."

Cargill told Insider in an email statement that the company can't comment on the case but does not tolerate using child labour in cocoa production. Like Nestle, Cargill notes that the end of child labour needs to be tackled by all stakeholders.

"Our resolve to address this has never been stronger and we are accelerating our efforts to address the root causes of child labour," Cargill's statement read.

Hershey took a similar stance in an email statement sent to Insider, and added that the end of human rights violations "requires significant investment and intervention on the ground in West Africa, not in the courts." 

"We have worked hard over the past several years to implement meaningful programs and work with our cocoa suppliers and West African governments to combat these issues and use our influence to make a positive impact," the company added.

Hershey's statement also specifically discussed the Child Labour Mitigation and Remediation Systems (CLMRS), which is a part of the International Cocoa Initiative. All seven of the named cocoa producers in the lawsuit are a part of the ICI.

According to Hershey, the CLMRS program didn't find any use of forced labour in its West Africa cocoa supply chain.

"Over the next few years, we expect these programs to cover 100% of our sourcing in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana," Hershey's statement read.

Mars, Barry Callebaut, Olam, and Mondelez did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. 

IRAdvocates also filed a lawsuit against Nestle and Cargill in 2005 on behalf of six former child slaves. This case - which is still pending - was last argued in the Supreme Court on December 1, 2020.