Activists are again accusing Cargill and other major food companies of buying cocoa from West African farms that force children to work in unsafe conditions.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia alleges Cargill, Mondelez, Mars Inc. and the company’s leaders “have done little to address the ongoing and pervasive use of child workers performing the worst forms of child labor on their sourcing plantations.”
The new suit comes after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a similar lawsuit targeting Nestle and Cargill in 2021 after 16 years of litigation. Activists have continued pressuring the companies to meet their pledges to eliminate child labor in their supply chains.
“Cargill is aware of the pervasiveness of child labor in its cocoa supply chain yet employs lofty but false stories of remediation and successful sustainability as a deplorable marketing tactic,” says the newly filed suit, which accuses the companies of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, theft and consumer fraud.
Minnetonka-based Cargill, a major cocoa supplier for chocolate makers and the nation’s largest privately held company, said in a statement Wednesday: “Forced child labor is unacceptable.”
“We take these allegations very seriously,” the company said. “We just learned of the filing and cannot comment on the specifics of the case.”
The case filed Wednesday is a class-action lawsuit that seeks to include all affected child cocoa workers in Ghana. It relies on different laws than the case dismissed by the Supreme Court, which has been refiled and remains pending.
“I went to two Cargill (supplier) plantations and interviewed a bunch of kids working there — and they were mostly kids working there,” said Terry Collingsworth, lead counsel at International Rights Advocates, which is representing the plaintiffs. “It’s clear to me companies are going to continue to do this and get this essentially free labor until they can’t do it anymore.”
The lawsuit includes stories of seven children who work on cocoa plantations in Ghana that Cargill reportedly sources from. The suit alleges children as young as six use sharp machetes in the fields and apply pesticides without protective equipment, causing them to “feel sick and dizzy.”
“For a 6-year-old child who has never been to school to perform these tasks to increase profits for Cargill is criminal,” the suit says.
A University of Chicago study paid for by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 1.5 million children in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana — which together account for 60% of the global cocoa supply — worked in cocoa production in 2018 and 2019.
“In farm families in cocoa country, more than a third of children in Côte d’Ivoire and just over half in Ghana worked in cocoa cultivation,” the study found. “Almost everyone was engaged in dangerous tasks.”
Cargill directly sources cocoa from Brazil, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Ghana and Indonesia and directly employs 4,700 people in its cocoa business, though it does not directly own any plantations.
Cargill established a “Coca Promise” in 2012 to “deliver a transparent and sustainable cocoa supply chain while enabling farmers and their communities to achieve better incomes and living standards growing cocoa sustainably.”
The company monitored 93,000 cocoa farming households from its sourcing sites in the past year as part of its Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System.
“To address the root causes of child labor, we are combining (monitoring and remediation) with preventative measures such as community development, women’s empowerment and opportunities for youth,” according to the company’s latest ESG report.
Collingsworth said the new lawsuit should withstand judicial scrutiny and force further action from Cargill and others. An initial hearing has been set for March 1.
“If they’re smart, they’ll decide, ‘We might benefit from being a company known as the first to make major changes,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until we get some justice for these families.”