The Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania is one of the wealthiest education centers in the world. Founded in 1909 as an orphanage for “male Caucasian” boys, it was awarded 30 percent of the company’s future earnings by Milton S. Hershey upon his death. Thanks to the success of Kit-Kats, Reese’s, and Whoppers, the school is worth a staggering $7.8 billion.
Now home to more than 2,000 students, it owns a controlling interest in the $22.3 billion Hershey company—a chocolate maker with roots in child protection and education that, in the worst form of irony, allegedly relies on cocoa harvested by child laborers in West Africa.
It is this irony that serves as the motivation behind a class action lawsuit filed Monday against Hershey and two of its competitors, Mars and Nestle. The complaints, filed by three California residents, allege that the companies are guilty of false advertising for failing to disclose the use of child slavery on their packaging. Without it, the plaintiffs claim, the companies are deceiving consumers into “unwittingly” supporting the child slave labor trade.
“America’s largest and most profitable food conglomerates should not tolerate child labor, much less child slave labor, anywhere in their supply chains,” the complaint reads. “These companies should not turn a blind eye to known human rights abuses... especially when the companies consistently and affirmatively represent that they act in a socially and ethically responsible manner.”
The class action suits seek both monetary damages for California residents who have purchased the chocolate and revised packaging that denotes child slaves were used. It’s a new approach to an old problem: the chocolate industry’s deep, dark, not-so-secret scandal. It’s been 15 years since the first allegations of child slavery in the chocolate industry caused national outrage. Will this be the final straw?
West Africa is home to two-thirds of the world’s cacao beans (cocoa), the main ingredient in chocolate—a product that’s fueled a $90 billion industry.
The first group to question the financial strategies behind the industry’s wealth was a British organization called True Vision Entertainment. In a shocking 2000 documentary titled Slavery: A Global Investigation, the group reported on the chocolate industry’s alleged connection to cocoa harvested by child slaves. The award-winning film opens on stick-thin adolescent boys in the Ivory Coast slinging hundred-pound bags of cocoa pods on their backs, followed by an interview in which the boys express their confusion over not being paid.
Later the filmmakers meet with 19 children who were said to have just been freed from slavery by the Ivorian authorities. Their guardian describes how they worked from dawn until dusk each day, only to be locked in a shed at night where they were given a tin cup in which to urinate. During the first six months (the “breaking-in period”), they say, they were routinely beaten. “The beatings were a part of my life,” says Aly Diabata, one of the former child laborers. “I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten.”
The boys’ stories are sickeningly graphic. Before beatings, the boys say they were stripped naked and tied up. They were then pummeled with a variety of weapons, from fists and feet to belts and whips. In the film, some of the boys get up and imitate the beatings. Others stand to reveal hundreds of scars lining their backs and torsos—some still bloody and scabbed. They get quiet when the filmmakers ask whether any are beaten today and say some are simply “taken away.”