By Sarah Weld
Despite a 2001 international agreement to combat child labor and slavery in West Africa, more children than ever are working in dangerous conditions at cocoa plantations throughout the Ivory Coast. As three International Human Rights Law Clinic students documented during a recent research project, young children—often trafficked and then enslaved—still fuel the world’s lucrative chocolate industry.
“We talked to children who were clearly 7 or 8 years old max, using machetes, climbing trees, cutting open cocoa pods,” says Kelsey Peden J.D./M.P.P. ’21, who spent a week in the Ivory Coast with Melina Cardinal-Bradette LL.M. ’19 this spring. “We saw young girls walking down the street with chemical containers as big as they were strapped to their backs, a lot of shocking uses of the worst forms of child labor.”
These “worst forms” are defined by the International Labor Organization as work that jeopardizes a child’s physical, mental, or moral well-being, including child trafficking, slavery, and working with hazardous chemicals—all rampant in the Ivory Coast.
Although the international agreement was set up as a self-regulating process, the groups tasked with monitoring child labor are, in fact, influenced and controlled by major chocolate companies. As a result, there has been an increase, not a reduction, in child labor and slavery, according to a 2015 Tulane University report and chocolate industry critics.
Peden, Cardinal-Bradette, and Alexandra Zaretsky ’20 have spent the last two semesters doing research, conducting interviews, and taking photos—now evidence for two ongoing lawsuits about child labor in the Ivory Coast, the largest chocolate producer worldwide.
On their trip, Peden and Cardinal-Bradette examined the current situation in person and gathered updated and additional evidence about the worst forms of child labor and child slave labor.
The two students interviewed staff from organizations backed by the cocoa industry such as the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Initiative, heavily influenced by companies like Nestle and Hershey. They also spoke to farmers, staff at cooperatives, and children working on plantations.
Much to the students’ surprise, employees at industry-backed organizations readily acknowledged that companies are not meeting child labor industry standards—which are voluntary—and don’t know the source of most of their cocoa.
“That’s one of our findings, that these organizations are claiming to be slave labor-free, sustainable, and improving the lives of farmers while they have no clue where 80 percent of the product comes from,” Cardinal-Bradette says.
The Ivory Coast trip gave the students a chance to verify and compare their desk research with what they saw in person. Their conclusion? Self regulation is not working.
The first case, Doe v. Nestle, was originally filed in 2005 by former child slaves forced to work on cocoa farms, against large manufacturers, purchasers, processors, and retail sellers of cocoa beans. The case brings claims under the Alien Tort Statute seeking to hold Nestle and others accountable for their complicity in the widespread use of child slave labor and child labor.
According to case documents, the children allege that at age 14 or younger, “they were forced to work without pay at three cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, and that they were guarded, kept in a locked room at night, and beaten, among other similar abuses—all at the hands of the plantation owners or operators.”
Last year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by a lower court to dismiss the suit and gave the plaintiffs a chance to amend their complaint and specify what Nestle has done to aid and abet child slavery in the Ivory Coast. The defendants have petitioned the Ninth Circuit for rehearing en banc (before all judges of the court).
In April, the students worked on the second case, Walker vs. Nestle. They helped California consumer attorneys conduct background research and draft a complaint recently filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California against chocolate companies for advertising their chocolate as sustainable, despite using child labor to cultivate cocoa beans.
The trio, who helped write the first draft of the consumer fraud case complaint, cite their clinic experience contributing real work to meaningful litigation as a highlight of their legal educations so far.
“It’s very nonhierarchical,” Peden says of meetings with clinic visiting professor Paul Hoffman and outside attorneys Terry Collingsworth and Helen Zeldes. “They have given us absolute confidence in the work that we do. It’s more like working on a team than under someone.”
Cardinal-Bradette, an international student from Quebec, agrees. “They value our ideas and opinions,” she says. “It’s a safe space to pitch ideas and over time we have become quite comfortable.”
The three students—all of whom say they chose Berkeley Law because of the clinic—aim to publish a report this summer that enlightens consumers about issues in the cocoa industry.
“Other law schools had classes in human rights and opportunities to participate,” Peden says. “But the clinic here was the one that gave me the most hands-on experience.”