#AbolishChildSlavery: INNterview with Executive Director of International Rights Advocates, Terrence Collingsworth

“It will force the companies by an order of the court to finally do what they promised to do back in 2000. That is, to stop using child [slave] labour.”
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Note: This story is looking at the issue of child slavery. Child labour and child slavery are not being used interchangeably. When the phrase ‘child labour’ is used, we mean ‘child slave labour’. The views represented here are of Terrence Collingsworth, and not of INN24.

The US Supreme Court holds the fate of over 1.8 million children, who have been used as slaves in the cocoa industries in countries like Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. Lawsuits have been filed against Nestle, Cargill, Mars, Mondelez, Hershey, Barry Callebaut, and Olam by the International Rights Advocates (IRA), a nonprofit human rights legal advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. 

INN24 interviewed Executive Director, Terrence Collingsworth, one of the representatives of the recent lawsuit filed specifically against Nestle and Cargill for using cocoa beans harvested by child slaves. 

You’re part of a group representing eight people in the legal battle against Nestle and Cargill. What’s the latest update?

I have been working on this issue of child slavery in the cocoa industry for more than 20 years. I filed a case in 2005 against Cargill and Nestle, and in 2016 the US Congress amended the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. That opened up the field to allow a civil action against companies that use child slavery, and forced or trafficked child labour in their supply chains. 

What happened after?

I went to Mali and interviewed young men, who returned from being trafficked. Then, I selected eight people that had really compelling stories which could identify the times and so on very well. They were selected to be representatives for our new case

How can we know that children were trafficked and forced into child slavery? Some countries do have a culture of children working at a young age.

It is illegal under international law and domestic law for any child under the age of 18 to be doing that kind of hazardous work. It is no defence to say they might be related to the owner of the plantation.

The US Department of labour funded a study in 2020, conducted by the University of Chicago, which found that 1.58 million children were working as child labourers in the cocoa sector.

The study confirmed that 95% of the 1.58 million children working in the harvesting cocoa industry were doing what they described as the worst form of child labour. This means they were using machetes, applying pesticides and herbicides.

All the companies that we sued said they were serious about ending this practice, saying “we are going to stop child labour”. But, their programs are doing nothing and child labour is increasing. 

Any study that can tell us how many children are trafficked into slavery ?

The University of Chicago study, for some reason, did not attempt to sort out differences between children performing worst forms of child labor and those who were trafficked. They did not even attempt to come up with that number, which is disappointing.

What do you think that number is?

Twenty plus years working on this issue and we have interviewed hundreds of child labourers on cocoa plantations. So, in my anecdotal evidence, about half of them were trafficked from either Mali or so. I think probably 50% of them are trafficked. 

How did they get kidnapped?

Girls are not involved in the labour trafficking process. They are used for sex trafficking instead. So, boys are the only ones trafficked to work on the cocoa plantations. 

At 11-years-old, boys are not considered valuable because they can’t do real farming work that their families need them to do. They are expendable, if you will, and so they get trafficked. Essentially, no one is paying attention to them. They typically get trafficked out of bus stations. There are tea shops and sandwich stalls and bicycle repair shops, where young boys go to try and get a day job.

Is there oversight from international companies that regulate working conditions on these farms?

They said by 2025 they will reduce 75% of their use of child labour. They are telling the court two different stories. They say “we just buy beans, we don’t know where they are from, you can not hold us responsible”. But on their website it says that they have personal relationships with all of their farms. That they send representatives to assess child labour and to help improve the quality of beans. 

Who is Cargill and why are they being sued?

Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the world, and also a closely held family corporation. They’re the largest producer of cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire, and also the largest producer of many other commodities in the world. So what they do, and the reason most people have never heard of them is they don’t retail their products. Cargill sells it’s cocoa to Nestle, and some other companies, but primarily to Nestle.

Do these companies have a legal duty to disclose the use of child labour on their products?

They should, but the courts have uniformly ruled that they do not have an affirmative duty to say they are using child labour. 

If you win, what will it change for child labour going forward?

It will force companies, by an order of the court, to finally do what they promised in 2000. And that is to stop using child labour. This new law that we are using – Trafficking Victims Protection Act – is a very specific and detailed statute that doesn’t leave a lot of room for judicial interpretation that would hurt human rights activist positions. 

If we win, we can get the court to order companies to stop their current practices that enslave children. That would require a whole upheaval of the cocoa sector but in a positive way. 

The court can also order that no further cocoa shipments could come in that are not certified as child labour-free, and that would instantly transform the market. The judge could appoint a special master to work with us to evaluate and assess compliance with the court order. Personally, I would be involved in identifying any failures of the companies to comply with the court’s order. I believe these companies control 90% of the market. 

What is the current situation for the eight people you are representing?

The eight plaintiffs who escaped one way or another found their way back to Mali, their home country. They are all with their families working as farmers, as far as I know. You can say they are living in poverty, but they are free and not enslaved.

Why is this story not covered more on the news?

I hate to be cynical, but I think the fact that these companies are very huge advertisers for mainstream media is a big reason why they don’t want to publish a story on child slavery.

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