Court refuses to dismiss Hershey child labor case

Judge rejects Master's recommendation to dismiss cocoa child labor suit. Photo Credit:

A US court has refused to dismiss a civil case against Hershey alleging complicity in illegal child labor and human trafficking on cocoa farms in West Africa.

The Court of Chancery for the State of Delaware allowed the case to proceed despite an earlier Master’s recommendation to dismiss for lack of evidence.

“I reach a different conclusion than the recommendation and I am denying the motion to dismiss,” said Judge Travis Laster on Tuesday.

The claimant, Louisiana Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System (LAMPERS), a Hershey shareholder, seeks a court order permitting it to inspect the chocolate company’s books.

Judge Laster ruled that a trial will be held where he will assess Hershey’s documents before deciding whether to allow LAMPERS to inspect. The documents are expected to contain details of Hershey’s suppliers and sourcing practices, which it had previously refused to disclose.

Hershey: 'Unmerited effort' to inspect our records

Jeff Beckman, director of corporate communications at Hershey said: "The Court made it clear in its ruling that it was not suggesting there was any actual wrongdoing or even that the plaintiff would ultimately be permitted to inspect Hershey’s records. 

"We respect the Court’s decision and will vigorously defend against this overly-broad and unmerited effort to examine our confidential records."

We contacted the lawyers for LAMPERS and are awaiting comment.

West Africa cocoa sourcing

Laws in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which account for 70% of the global cocoa supply, forbid forcing children to engage in dangerous activities such as carrying heavy loads and using machetes.

“Those laws are routinely violated; hence, the use of child and forced labor is, indeed, pervasive,” said Laster.

An earlier case (Doe v Nestlé) found that it was possible for a US corporation to be liable for aiding and abetting offences in international law, such as principles against child labor and human trafficking.

Harkin-Engel Protocol

Hershey and other chocolate companies signed the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, committing to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by July 2005.

By 2010, it was acknowledged that the Harkin-Engel Protocol hadn’t gone to plan and a new framework was drawn up to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2020 instead.

Child labor still rife

Ten years after the protocol, a 2011 report from the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University found that child labor in the cocoa industry was still rife.

“Basically the Payson Report documents all the worst ills that one could imagine about this problem. Nearly two million children work illegally on cocoa farms. There's evidence of widespread violations of human trafficking laws,” said Laster.

Hershey accounts for 43% of the world’s largest chocolate market: the US.

In October 2013 the firm announced that by 2020 its entire cocoa supply would come from certified farms, which are audited to stamp out illegal child labor. In January this year it reported that 18% currently comes from certified organizations such as UTZ certified, Fair Trade USA and Rainforest Alliance.

“…Right now Hershey's has to acknowledge that some of its cocoa is produced through child labor and as a result of individuals who were the victims of human trafficking,” said Laster.

“If I call up, you know, my daughter's school and I say, ‘Can you confirm for me that there's no one on the payroll with a criminal record?’ and they say to me, ‘We're not going to do that now, but we hope to be able to do so in 2020,’ I'm going to draw the inference that they can't do it right now and there's probably someone at the school with a criminal record.”

Inference that Hershey knew

The judge said there was a reasonable inference that Hershey’s products contained cocoa derived from child labor and human trafficking and also an inference the Hershey knew about it. He said the Master’s report had assessed illegal conduct rather than “possible mismanagement”, which required a lower standard of proof.

The trail was therefore allowed to proceed. 

Related News

Hazardous work is prohibited but children may still help out on farms, says ICI

What is cocoa child labor? ICI sorts the acceptable from the unacceptable

‘The use of child slave labor in the ivory Coast is a humanitarian tragedy,’ and chocolate companies could be held to account, says senior circuit judge. Photo Credit - Make Chocolate Fair

Nestlé, ADM and Cargill can’t escape liability for cocoa child slavery, rules court

Hershey expands Learn to Grow program in Côte d’Ivoire, but how money much is it committing to cocoa sustainability as a proportion of sales?

Hershey and Cargill team up on Ivorian cocoa program

Cocoa origin labeling enables consumers to avoid chocolate made via child slavery, says the Food Empowerment Project.  But the International Cocoa Initiative warns that boycotts could make things worse.

West Africa boycott needed for slave-free chocolate, says consumer group

Cocoa child labor numbers continue to rise amid calls for the industry to step-up efforts. Photo credit: Dark Side of Chocolate

Hazardous cocoa child labor climbs 18% in West Africa: ‘Rallying call’ for chocolate industry to step up

Almost 820,000 children in the Ivory Coast and over 997,000 kids in Ghana were found to be working on cocoa-related activities in 2007/2008, according to Tulane University. Photo Credit: 10 Campaign

Hershey child labor lawsuit faces meltdown

An estimated 284,000 children work on cocoa farms in West Africa, according to studies. Photo Credit: ILRF

Hershey sued over alleged child labor abuses

Hershey joins Mars and Ferrero with pledges to source only sustainable cocoa by 2020

Hershey stuns critics with commitment to source 100% certified cocoa by 2020

NGO pushes Mondelēz for a public deadline to certify its entire cocoa supply to combat child trafficking. Photo Credit: Make Chocolate Fair

Self-regulation on cocoa child trafficking inadequate: NGO points finger at Mondelēz