Chocolate Giants Face Slave Labor Lawsuits

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Three of the nation's largest chocolate companies - Mars, Nestle and Hershey - get cocoa from suppliers that use child slave labor, customers claimed Monday in three federal class actions.
     All three lawsuits, filed by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, claim the candy giants "turn a blind eye" to human rights abuses by cocoa suppliers in West Africa while falsely portraying themselves as socially and ethically responsible.
     "America's largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labor, much less child slave labor, anywhere in their supply chains," the complaints state.
     They accuse the companies of false advertising and violations of California business and consumer laws. All the plaintiffs claim they would not have bought the defendants' chocolate had they known it was produced with child slave labor.
     All cite the defendants' corporate responsibility statements, including Hershey's declaration that it has "zero tolerance for the worst forms of child labor in its supply chain."
     Lead plaintiff Elaine McCoy claims Nestle has publicly embraced protection of human rights as one of its core business principles, but fails to live up to it or to disclose the truth to customers.
     A Nestle spokesman said the company stands by its position that child labor is unacceptable and goes against "everything Nestlé stands for."
     "We have set ourselves the goal of eradicating child labor from our cocoa supply chain and have put a dedicated action plan in place," Nestle spokesman Eddie Burge said in an email. "We require all of our suppliers to respect human rights and prohibit forced labor."
     More than 4,000 children work at forced labor to produce cocoa on Ivory Coast plantations, according to a Tulane University study cited in the complaints.
     Some children are sold by their parents to traffickers while others are kidnapped. Some migrate willingly but fall victim to traffickers who sell them to recruiters or farmers, the complaints state.
     The children are held against their will on isolated farms, locked away at night, threatened with beatings and forced to work long hours even when they are sick, according to the complaints.
     More than 1.1 million children in the Ivory Coast suffered the "worst forms of child labor" - using dangerous tools, transporting heavy loads and being exposed to pesticides - according to a 2015 report by Tulane University sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.
     "Children that are not even 10 years old carry huge sacks that are so big that they cause them serious physical harm," the complaints state. "Much of the world's chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of child slaves."
     Though the chocolate industry has set a goal to obtain 100 percent of its cocoa from certified sources by 2020, that commitment does not free the companies from the "obligation to provide disclosures to consumers at the point of sale," the lawsuits state.
     All plaintiffs seek class certification, declaratory judgment, restitution and an injunction against unfair and deceptive business practices.
     The other lead plaintiffs are Robert Hodson, who sued Mars; and Laura Dana, who sued Hershey.
     Lead counsel for all is Elaine Byszewksi with Hagens Berman in Pasadena.
     Mars did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
     A spokesman for Hershey told Courthouse News the issues presented in the class action "are not new and reflect long-term challenges in cocoa-growing countries that many stakeholders, including NGOs, companies in the cocoa supply chain and the U.S Government have been working diligently together to address for a number of years.
     "Poverty is a fundamental issue in the cocoa-growing region of West Africa, and companies across the entire cocoa supply chain have been actively involved in substantial initiatives to improve the economic, social and labor conditions in these cocoa-growing communities," he said.
     Hershey is "proud of the cocoa sustainability and farmer training programs we have established through NGOs and other partners in West Africa during the past few years" and the cocoa industry will invest another $400 million in the region by 2020 to reduce instances of inappropriate labor issues, the company said.
     The Ninth Circuit ruled in September 2014 that a group of John Does who were forced to work as child slaves on West African cocoa plantations could sue Nestle under the Alien Tort Statute.
     But in June this year, eight Ninth Circuit judges issued a scathing opinion strongly disagreeing with the previous ruling and accusing their colleagues of "substitut[ing] sympathy for legal analysis." Mars is the largest candy company in the nation, with $18.5 billion in candy revenue in 2014, and Hershey was No. 3, with $7.1 billion, according to candy industry publications. Nestle reported $100 billion in income that year, though it is not clear how much of that comes from candy and chocolate.