Skip to content

WASHINGTON D.C.–Late last night, International Rights Advocates (IRAdvocates) filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine children against Cargill, Mars, and Mondelēz for profiting from brutal conditions classified as the “worst forms” of child labor on the plantations where they source their cocoa in Ghana, West Africa. A Brazilian court found Cargill guilty of using child labor on its plantations just last year, making the practices described by the children as part of an international pattern of crime.   

The lawsuit charges Cargill and the other defendants for both knowingly profiting from child labor, which is illegal worldwide, and doing virtually nothing to improve their practices. This comes in spite of the fact that they signed the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol committing to “phasing out” the worst forms of child labor in cocoa plantations by 2005. According to a US Department of Labor-funded study, the number of children harvesting cocoa in Ghana has increased since the commitment, not decreased. It states that since setting the goal in 2001, “in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the prevalence of child labor in cocoa production among all agricultural households increased 14 percentage points and the prevalence of hazardous child labor has increased 13 percentage points.”1 By the most recent counts there are more than 1.5 million children harvesting cocoa in these two countries with 95 percent of them performing hazardous work.2 

“This new case establishes that Cargill continues to profit from child slavery and systematically cheats poverty-stricken cocoa farmers by under weighing their cocoa. Therefore, finally proving that the ‘Cargill Cocoa Promise’ is a lie,” Terry Collingsworth, lead counsel at International Rights Advocates said. “We plan to disgorge Cargill’s ill-gotten gains and give it back to the children who were forced to sacrifice their childhoods to enrich the Cargill-MacMillan families.”   

The lawsuit is being filed in tandem with a CBS feature on the brutal conditions of child labor at the Ghanaian cocoa plantations. Together they demonstrate that although Cargill and the other defendants claim to have child-free labor on plantations, in reality this is far from the truth. Most of the children spray harmful pesticides without any sort of protective equipment and have scars to prove their daily use of machetes. 

“The Cargill family has the power to end child labor in the cocoa trade by demanding a living wage for cocoa farmers. The time to take action is now,” Mathew Jacobson of Stand.Earth said. “The Cargill family is making billions off of the backs of African children. We’ve heard for over 20 years that Cargill is ‘committed’ to ending child labor. It’s time for the family to step up and make that commitment real.” 

Cargill is the largest privately owned company in America, and the fifth largest in the world. Approximately 20 people, broken down into two branches of the family, the Cargills and the MacMillans, own about 88 percent of the company.3 They are the fourth richest family in America,4 with more billionaires than any other family on Earth.5 and IRA is calling for the family owners of Cargill to demand a living wage for cocoa farmers. 

The continued failure to change their practices has been recorded time and again throughout the years, but Cargill has done little to address the ongoing and pervasive use of child labor for the sourcing of their cocoa. 

In July 2005, the International Labor Rights Forum filed suit against Cargill and Nestlé on behalf of six Malian children who were trafficked into Côte d’Ivoire and forced to work 12 to14 hours a day with no pay, little food and sleep, and frequent beatings. The lawsuit charged that, for years, Cargill knowingly purchased cocoa harvested by child slaves and provided funds, supplies, training and other assistance to plantations in Côte d’Ivoire known for using child slaves. In June 2021 the Supreme Court dismissed the case, siding with the attorneys from Cargill and Nestlé who argued that US courts lacked the jurisdiction to charge American companies for complicity in enslaving children outside of the country.6  

“This time will be different,” Collingsworth stated. “We are using time-tested common law claims to hold Cargill and the other companies accountable for their serious human rights crimes against children.”