Labor group sues Nestlé

Glendale News Press

Glendale-based company under fire for allegedly using child laborers; Nestlé denies claims.

By Robert Chacon

DOWNTOWN GLENDALE -- Nestlé U.S.A. is one of three cocoa industry companies being sued by labor rights groups on behalf of former child laborers, who allege that the companies knowingly abetted in the torture and forced labor of children as young as 14.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the United States District Court of California by human rights groups International Labor Rights Fund and Global Exchange. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are African nationals identified and John Doe one, two and three out of fear of retaliation, according to the suit.

Glendale-based Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Incorporated Co. all failed to meet a July 1 deadline to discontinue child labor from cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, said Bama Athreya, deputy director of International Labor Rights Fund.

The chocolate industry banded together in 2001 to draw up protocols to solve the problem, but after doing so, failed to implement their plans, she said.

"Mind you, the companies we have targeted all have offices on the Ivory Coast and have a great deal of control, but were doing nothing on the labor farms," she said.

The lawsuit has no merit, Nestlé spokeswoman Barb Skoog said.

"We have been working as a whole [industry] and are committed to finding lasting solutions," she said. "We believe it is important to ensure that cocoa is grown responsibly without unlawful labor practices."

Nestlé does not own cocoa farms, Skoog said.

Child labor solutions were spelled-out in the Harkin-Engel Protocol, an accord signed in 2001 by cocoa industry representatives, Skoog said. Since then, positive steps have been taken to address child labor including the creation of the International Cocoa Initiative Foundation and the initiation of child labor monitoring systems.

"We have actively participated in the industries efforts to address this issue," Skoog said.

But in a trip to the Ivory Coast last month, International Labor Rights Fund attorney Natacha Thys discovered that trafficking in child labor was still going on, she said.

"People I spoke to said that there is still trafficking going on, and it may have increased," she said. "In lay terms, trafficking is kidnapping."

The lawsuit claims that the three plaintiffs were taken from their homes at 14, beaten, threatened with torture and forced to work up to 14 hours a day, six days a week, with only meager meals as compensation.

The Ivory Coast is the largest exporter of cocoa in the world, providing 70% of the world's supply, a majority of which is imported to the U.S., according to the lawsuit.

A 1997 report by United Nations Children's Fund Executive Director Carol Ballamy states that roughly 378,000 children on the Ivory Coast work in various sectors of the economy, including cocoa farming.

Nestlé is directly involved in the purchasing and processing of cocoa from the Ivory Coast, provides financial support, supplies and training to agencies in the region and continually monitors performance of cocoa suppliers, the lawsuit states.

"Decisions are being made in the U.S. headquarters," Thys said. "Our argument is that there has been public information since the mid '90s about child labor, and based on those reputable reports, [Nestlé] should have found this as part of its due diligence. They bear responsibility all the way up the supply chains."

Nestlé, which first sold condensed milk in South Africa in 1880, is committed to building companies in Africa, according to its website.

In 27 factories, as well as distribution centers and corporate offices, Nestlé employs some 11,500 people and has potential to employ another 50,000 workers through suppliers and in distribution centers.

Nestlé manufactures a host of products, including baby foods, beverages, cereal products, dairy products, pet foods and chocolate-based products. The company employs more than 21,000 people in the U.S. and had $12.5 billion in sales in 2004. The company will vigorously defend against the lawsuit, Skoog said.