Leading global chocolate companies Mars, Nestlé and Hershey are among the defendants facing a child slavery lawsuit in the USA, The Guardian reported on 12 February.

Human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRA) had filed the lawsuit in Washington DC on behalf of eight former alleged child slaves who claimed they had been forced to work without pay on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, the newspaper wrote.

In the lawsuit, which also named Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Olam and Mondelēz, the eight children had accused the corporations of aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of “thousands” of children on cocoa farms in their supply chains.

All originally from Mali and now young adults, the plaintiffs were seeking damages for forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the report said.

It was the first time that a class action of this kind had been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court, The Guardian said.

A central allegation of the lawsuit was that the defendants, despite not owning the cocoa farms in question, “knowingly profited” from the illegal work of children, the report said. According to the submissions, the defendants’ contracted suppliers were able to provide lower prices than if they had employed adult workers with proper protective equipment.

The case documentation maintained that the defendants were responsible for developing the entire cocoa production system of Ivory Coast. As key participants in this “venture”, it was claimed that they either knew or should have known about the “systematic” use of child labour, The Guardian reported.

In a statement Cargill was reported to have said: “We are aware of the filing and while we cannot comment on specifics of this case right now, [the company wants] to reinforce we have no tolerance for child labour in cocoa production. Children belong in school. They deserve safe living conditions and access to good nutrition.”

Nestlé was quoted as saying that the lawsuit “does not advance the shared goal of ending child labour in the cocoa industry” and added, “child labour is unacceptable and goes against everything we stand for. Nestlé has explicit policies against it and is unwavering in our dedication to ending it. We remain committed to combatting child labour within the cocoa supply chain and addressing its root causes as part of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and through collaborative efforts.”

A Mars spokesperson said the company couldn’t comment on pending litigation, The Guardian reported, and Mondelēz said it did not wish to comment.

Barry Callebaut was quoted as saying it had committed to eradicating child labour from its supply chain by 2025. “Every year we publish the progress we have made against this target in our Forever Chocolate progress report.”

An Olam spokesperson was reported to have said that the company had a zero-tolerance policy for forced or slave labour in its supply chain. “If we were to identify any instances, we would immediately take action which includes notifying the appropriate authorities.”

A spokesperson for Hershey was quoted as saying: “We understand and agree with the concerns about the heartbreaking instances of child and forced labour. Hershey does not tolerate child or forced labour in our supply chain. These human rights violations have no place in the global cocoa industry, and we are committed to ending it. Effectively eliminating human rights violations and addressing the underlying issue of poverty that is the root cause of these labour violations requires significant investment and intervention on the ground in West Africa, not in the courts.

The case was being brought under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017, The Guardian reported, and the IRA was also involved in a separate complaint filed under the Alien Tort Statute against Nestlé and Cargill.

Ivory Coast produced about 45% of the global supply of cocoa which, along with cocoa butter, was a core ingredient in chocolate, the report said.