Halloween is just around the corner, and candy maker Nestlé, which is the largest food company in the world, continues to be haunted by allegations of child slave labor in its supply chain.
Even though Nestlé sold chocolate brands like Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, and Crunch to Ferrero Rocher for $2.8 billion earlier this year, it maintained its Kit-Kat brand (with the U.S. rights belonging to Hershey), and continues to own the Aero, Animal Bar, Caramac, Crunch, Milkybar, Rolo, Walnut Whip, and Yorkie brand of chocolate candies.
An ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court earlier this year argues that Nestlé, for years, knew about child slave labor in its West African supply chain, yet failed to disclose that fact to customers.
“Chocolate is perhaps the most beloved confectionary ingredient in the world. Most major companies that purchase chocolate obtain it from sources in West Africa, including Ivory Coast and Ghana,” the complaint reads.
“Although Nestlé’s Corporate Business Principles and Supplier Code prohibit both child and slave labor, Nestlé is aware that cocoa beans from West Africa are produced using child labor, including the Worst Forms of Child Labor as recognized by the United Nations: the compulsory labor of trafficked children and the labor of children involving dangerous tools, transport of heavy loads, and exposure to toxic substances, i.e., hazardous work.”
The complaint cited findings from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) on the prevalence of child slave labor in the Ivory Coast. The DOL found that as recently as the 2013-2014 cocoa harvest season, there were approximately 1.2 million children between the ages of five and 17 working forced labor jobs, and an estimated 96 percent of those children were forced to work in hazardous conditions.
“There’s a high probability that your chocolate bars in your supermarket are produced by child slaves,” journalist Miki Mistrati told the Shreveport Times in 2016. “They are lured away from their home country and work as slaves, so you can get cheap chocolate.”
Despite this, the lawsuit alleges Nestlé keeps this information hidden from customers.
“We are not aware of any recent efforts besides ours to force Nestlé to disclose its use of slave labor at the point of sale to customers,” Elaine Byszewski, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Grit Post.
One part of the complaint references a 2015 audit of Nestlé by the Fair Labor Association that directly accused the company of relying on child slave labor, specifically in the Ivory Coast — which produces 47 percent of the chocolate imported by the U.S.
“[Children] were expected to work in hazardous conditions and carry out dangerous tasks, including using machetes and transporting heavy loads,” the audit read.
However, Nestlé disputes allegations that it depends on the exploitation of child slave labor for its products. The company has an extensive page on its website documenting its processes combating slave labor. In 2017, Nestlé published a report entitled “Tackling Child Labour.”
The report identified 40,728 children between the ages of five and 17 across the cocoa industry who are being tracked through the company’s Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System, and states that 5,232 of those children are being helped. Nestlé’s report claims that only three children were directly involved in their supply chain in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively, and that each case has been addressed.
“Human rights abuses have no place in our supply chain,” Nestlé spokeswoman Lydia Méziani told Grit Post. “Nestlé is taking all the actions in our reach to avoid any forced labor in our supply chain in West Africa and elsewhere.”
An August report in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald suggests that the company might still be relying heavily on child slave labor, so much so that it complained about an Australian slavery disclosure law’s potential cost to their consumers.
Nestle, owner of more than 2000 brands in 189 countries, has told a senate committee that Australia’s proposed mandatory reporting requirements could add “cost and time” to businesses and suppliers “which will need to be borne somewhere” …
“While we are of the view that the mandatory requirements are sensible, in practical terms this
difference means that multinational companies will have to prepare bespoke statements for
each country in which they are required to report,” Nestle’s submission said.
” … Not all suppliers may bear those costs themselves; some may pass them on to customers/consumers.”
However, Méziani told Grit Post that the company is in support of the proposed Australian law, saying the company has been “actively involved at all stages.”
“Nestlé Australia has strongly supported the development of the proposed Modern Slavery Act,” Méziani said. “We have openly shared our supply chain experiences, and recently expressed our support in this open letter to the country’s Prime Minister.”
“Nestlé has also consistently supported the development of balanced legislation on modern slavery and related issues in other countries, including the UK where we report on an annual public basis,” she added.
The lawsuit in U.S. District court is still pending as of this writing, with motions to dismiss fully briefed and awaiting action from the judge presiding over the case. Méziani is confident the ruling will be in Nestlé’s favor.
“This lawsuit is a ‘carbon copy’ of one previously filed by the same law firm and dismissed in a California court. We believe this one will be dismissed too,” Méziani said. “Consumer class actions are not the way to solve such a serious and complex issue as forced child labor.”
However, Byszewski disagrees, stating that consumer protection laws are stronger in Massachusetts, and that class-action lawsuits “have the ability to serve as a powerful line of defense in consumer protection.”
“Consumers suffer the brunt of corporate wrongdoing and have little power to hold companies responsible or to change those tactics,” Byszewski said. “We’ve changed the way universities and national sports governing organizations treat concussions. We’ve recovered heirlooms stolen from families during the Holocaust. We recovered twice consumers’ losses in our e-books antitrust case, and many consumer-facing settlements have included injunctive relief in the form of measures to prevent repeated wrongdoing.”
“We fight for real change through the law.”
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.