The well-known multinational chocolate companies Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey, among others, were sued in the United States by eight young people who as children were exploited as slaves on African cocoa plantations.

These young men represent the thousands of children who are recruited each year by trickery and deception, and then trafficked to cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, The Guardian reported on Feb. 12. 

Child slavery in Africa

There they were forced to work for years without pay, without travel documents, and without knowing where they were or how to return home. 

One of them was only 11 years old when he was convinced in his hometown of Kouroussandougou, Mali, that he would be paid $47 a month, but after two years he was paid nothing, according to lawsuit documents. 

As part of his work, he often had to apply toxic pesticides and herbicides, without protective clothing or equipment.

Another plaintiff had scars on his hands and arms from machete accidents. They also had to endure constant insect bites.

Alone, fed little, and long work days

They stated that they were fed little and worked long hours. They were left alone or with children who spoke different dialects.

Among other charges, it is argued that what the children endured is morally repugnant, and that they suffer a “humanitarian catastrophe,” which generates “long-term mental and physical trauma,” according to The Guardian. 

The lawsuit was filed in Washington D.C. by the human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRA), a first in the United States.

Research from the Department of State, the International Labor Organization, and UNICEF is cited in support of their claims for compensation.

The problem of the enslavement of children in Africa has been denounced for decades, and although the large companies linked to the chocolate industry make promises to combat it, it seems that in practice there is little change. 

Through the Harkin-Engel voluntary protocol, the companies promised to have it solved by 2005, which they failed to do. Now the World Cocoa Foundation, with which the defendants are associated, has moved the date to 2025.

Some 1.56 million children, many as young as 5 years old, are forced to harvest chocolate in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. These countries supply nearly 70% of global consumption, Fortune reported in October 2020. 

The Gates Foundation has at least $32 million invested in the chocolate company Mondelēz, which has been criticized for its use of child labor, according to The Nation.

The investments are made through the Berkshire Hathaway company, in which they own a stake of $11.5 billion.

Additionally, the Gates Foundation donated $32.5 million to the World Cocoa Foundation, an industrial group to which Mondelēz belongs, to improve the lives of farmers, without including measures against child labor.