Nestlé USA, Inc. is the defendant in a proposed class action lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleges the company’s cocoa beans sourced from West Africa, namely from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, are produced using child labor, including the Worst Forms of Child Labor as identified by the United Nations.
“Much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of children, in many cases under conditions of slavery,” the 41-page lawsuit alleges. “Notwithstanding its awareness of the Worst Forms of Child Labor used to produce the cocoa beans used to make its chocolate products, Nestlé does not disclose this to consumers at the point of purchase.”
Although Nestlé’s Corporate Business Principles and Supplier Code expressly prohibit child and slave labor, the lawsuit alleges the defendant has not adhered to one of its purportedly most important core principles.
For instance, the complaint cites a Fair Labor Association audit of Nestlé released in 2015 that found “evidence of children younger than fifteen working on Ivory Coast farms supplying the chocolate manufacturer.” Although the defendant supposedly has the power to control nearly every aspect of how its cocoa beans are produced and supplied, the case slams Nestlé for its ongoing shortcomings in being unable to trace precisely which plantations source its cocoa beans, as well as its apparent inability to ensure that they’re not the product of child labor.
Nestlé acknowledges, as it must, that ‘there are children working on farms in Cote d’Ivoire in areas where we source cocoa.’ Specifically, Nestlé acknowledges that ‘[t]oo many children are involved in hazardous farming tasks or work on farms instead of going to school,’ that ‘there are situations of children carrying out unsafe tasks, using dangerous tools, carrying loads that are too heavy, suffering injuries and missing out on school,’ and that ‘[s]ome producers are also known to seek cheap labour by illegally using forced child or adult labour.’ Despite these acknowledgements, Nestlé makes no disclosure regarding child or slave labor to consumers at the point of sale and the vast majority of consumers are unaware of these human rights abuses.”
“An Entire Generation of West African Children Has Suffered”
The Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, with Cote d’Ivoire supplying more than 40 percent of the raw ingredient used worldwide, the lawsuit says. Nestlé has supposedly acknowledged, among other troubling revelations about how the $90 billion chocolate industry functions, that “too many children are involved in hazardous farming tasks or work on farms instead of going to school.” These admissions notwithstanding, the complaint charges that Nestle, instead of outright disclosing that human rights abuses occur within its supply chain, simply restates its public relations-tinted determination to “fight the problem.” The complaint is quick to attack this assurance:
Nestle wrongly asserts that in the last decade, ‘there have been positive changes and evidence of … fewer children exposed to unsafe farming tasks,’ such that ‘progress is being made.’ But a 2015 report sponsored by the United States Department of Labor found that children engaged in hazardous work in Ivorian cocoa production has increased over 40% from 2008/09 to 2013/14.
Indeed, Nestlé has been falsely assuring those who are aware of the human rights abuses that it will end child and slave labor in its Ivorian Coast supply chain since 2001. Meanwhile an entire generation of West African children has suffered due to Nestlé’s empty promises.”
The complaint points out that Nestlé, back in 2001, signed with other chocolate manufacturers the Harkin-Engel Protocol, an agreement aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor in the production of cocoa. Despite the deadlines set in the agreement, Nestlé and their compatriots were not only unable to meet the Harkin-Engel Protocol’s original deadline of July 1, 2005, but also a new, self-set June 16, 2008 deadline and another self-imposed September 13, 2010 deadline.
The companies’ new deadline to implement credible and transparent monitoring of the Ivory Coast and Ghana’s cocoa-growing regions, as well as reduce the worst forms of child labor that occur in these areas by at least 70 percent, is set for 2020.
The Nestlé Cocoa Plan
Nestlé’s awareness of how sensitive consumers have become to the human cost behind the goods they buy – food, clothing or otherwise—is another focal point in the complaint, which cites studies examining the likeliness of individuals paying extra for something they knew was Fair Trade-certified or marked with a Good Working Conditions label. Recognizing that the means of production for ingredients is of material interest to the public, Nestlé’s “extensive public relations effort” attempts to position the company as one that has no tolerance for child or slave labor in its supply chain, the lawsuit claims.
Per the complaint, Nestlé’s positioning efforts run the gamut from restating its commitment to promoting sustainability and tackling labor concerns—by way of the “Nestlé Cocoa Plan” launched in 2009—all the way down to the labels on its candy bars.
The case hints that Nestlé’s labeling of its confections plays a part in effectively downplaying the role child labor allegedly has in its cocoa business. The labels of Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and Crunch bars, for instance, denote that “The Nestlé Cocoa Plan works with UTZ Certified to help improve the lives of cocoa farmers and the quality of their products.” The lawsuit claims this is merely a tactic meant to “not tip off the vast majority of consumers who do not know about the Worst Forms of Child Labor in the supply chain.”
Furthermore, despite Nestle’s claims that it works with UTZ Certified and Fairtrade to oversee production at its cocoa co-operatives, the complaint asserts the actual farms supplying the “Nestle Cocoa Plan cocoa beans” were allegedly the same referenced in the Fair Labor Association audit mentioned at the top of this post.
In 2013, the suit says, the company doubled down on its commitment to “increasing the quantities of Nestlé Cocoa Plan and UTZ certified cocoa beans purchased each year,” with the “ultimate goal” of sourcing all cocoa needed in the United States. In 2016, Nestlé reported that accelerated activities had allowed it to achieve this goal.
At this juncture, the complaint picks apart the wording used by Nestlé in its “mission accomplished”-type statement:
“But note the change in language…” the complaint says. “It claimed to have achieved the goal ‘of sourcing UTZ-certified, sustainable cocoa equal to amounts needed to supply 100% of our confections and snacks portfolio and Nestlé Toll House morsels’ in the U.S. Worldwide, by the end of 2015, Nestlé was still only at 34%, where it remained in 2017, and then projected that it would only reach 57% in 2020.”
The lawsuit argues the importance of Nestlé’s language switch-up by pointing out that cocoa beans from thousands of villages end up combined into large shipments then sent to countries around the world. All told, legitimate, ethically harvest cocoa beans, the case says, end up co-mingled with those harvested via child labor, “such that Nestlé is unable to trace the products it sells” to confirm their cocoa components are above bar.
From the lawsuit:
Thus, although Nestle achieved a growing proportion of U.S. beans covered by its Cocoa Plan during the class period, admittedly these cocoa beans were equal to amounts needed to supply its U.S. sales—not that Cocoa Plan chocolate bars were themselves free of hazardous and/or forced child labor.”
The complaint can be read below and is well worth a read.