The consumer rights law firm known as Hagens Berman filed a lawsuit against Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé on Monday, on the behalf of three California residents. The crux of the lawsuit suggests that these companies not only knowingly sourced their cocoa from farms in West Africa that used child labor (and in many cases, child slave labor) but that they broke California state law by failing to disclose this fact on the packaging of their products.
Essentially, they are suing for false advertising, and claim that they never would have purchased products from these companies if they knew how they were made. All three companies have since responded to the lawsuit, and have predictably claimed they are not guilty of any wrongdoing.
In an email to Refinery29, a Hershey spokesman said the company is “committed to the ethical and responsible sourcing of all of our product ingredients and have no tolerance for illegal practices, including children used as forced labor in cocoa farming.” He cited the company’s role in industry-wide efforts to curb such labor practices, saying the “combined and focused effort of the entire industry and other stakeholders is a very encouraging and positive development. ”
Nestlé told The Daily Beast that the allegations are “without merit.” “Child labor has no place in our cocoa supply chain,” Nestlé said in a statement. “We are taking action to progressively eliminate it by assessing individual cases and tackling the root causes.”
Mars told The Daily Beast that the company “shares the widely-held view that child labor and trafficking is abhorrent and rooted in complex economic, political, and social issues” and that Mars is “committed to being part of the solution.”
Of course, these allegations are nothing new. The unsavory source of 70% of the world’s cocoa supply has been widely known for over a decade. What is new, is the fact that the problem may be growing. Despite the rosy claims of these PR officials, the lawsuit alleges that the number of children working under horrendous conditions in the Ivory Coast (carrying heavy loads, using dangerous tools, being exposed to pesticides) has grown by 39% since 2008. More conservative estimates place the increase at 18%.
And these aren’t necessarily kids working for their impoverished parents on small farms, doing what they can to help their families make ends meet, though that is probably the case for many of them. The lawsuit specifically cites cases of children who are smuggled into West Africa, sold to plantation owners, and forced to work for no pay under threat of physical violence.
While companies like Hershey have expressed their desire to end the sourcing of cocoa from slave labor plantations by 2020, don’t hold your breath. Cocoa prices are expected to soar in the near future, with most estimates suggesting that there may be severe cocoa shortages by the year 2020. Cocoa has already more than doubled in price over the past ten years.
With numbers like that, somehow I doubt that these confection companies will want to do anything about the slavery problem in West Africa. It would raise costs at the same time that their raw ingredients will become incredibly expensive. And despite the fact that these slaves have been well-known for over a decade, it hasn’t really stopped the average consumer from buying their chocolates. Unfortunately, the horrifying source of the world’s chocolate, probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Joshua Krause is a reporter, writer and researcher at The Daily Sheeple. He was born and raised in the Bay Area and is a freelance writer and author. You can follow Joshua’s reports at Facebook or on his personal Twitter. Joshua’s website is Strange Danger.