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Finance & Innovation

The child labor lawsuit against Nestlé: what you need to know

Flickr: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

An international child labor lawsuit will be reviewed in a court in California sometime this year, potentially setting an important precedent in the effort to end child labor.

Background

In 2005, a group of agricultural workers from Mali brought a child labor lawsuit against Nestlé food corporation.

The workers alleged that they had been captured in Mali and then sent to work in the Ivory Coast. They say that they were held against their will, beaten and forced to work long hours for no pay on farms where Nestlé sourced its cocoa.

Nestlé has claimed that it had no idea child labor and such flagrant abuse of workers was taking place.

But the lawsuit alleges that the company did in fact know and even paid farmers to do whatever needed to be done to reduce costs.

The farmers took this as a cue to force kids to work against their will, depriving them of their childhoods.

This always seemed like a longshot case--how could a Switzerland-based company be held responsible in the US for labor practices in West Africa? Plus, similar cases had been thrown out in the past. As the years wore on, it seemed like the case was going nowhere.

But just last week the US Supreme court decided that the lawsuit did, in fact, have merit, and that Nestlé should, in fact, be tried for wrongdoing.

If the plaintiffs win this case, it could have enormous economic and social repercussions.    

The bigger picture

Child labor means different things in different countries. Some countries stipulate 16 as the minimum working age. Others stipulate 15, others 14, and others have no minimum working age.

In Bolivia, the minimum working age is 10, and many poor kids start working as early as 5.

In all countries, there are kids who slip through the cracks and work off-the-books before the legal age.

The prevalence of child labor usually comes down to enforcement agencies: are they well-funded and capable?

In the US even, there are worries that child labor will rise as funding drops for the primary regulator, The Occupational Health and Safety Administration or OSHA.

The ethical implications of child labor varies in every situation. In some cases, child labor may be okay because it does not prevent a kid from going to school, socializing and living a fulfilling childhood.

But in the majority of cases, illegal child labor is undeniably wrong and harmful.

215 million kids around the world work regularly.

“More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour, illicit activities including drug trafficking and prostitution, as well as involvement in armed conflict,” according to the UN.

Oftentimes, child labor directly benefits multinational corporations that outsource labor to, and source all their resources and products from, countries with weak regulatory bodies.

Most notoriously, members of the fashion industry depend on child labor and other forms of exploitation. Generally, companies deflect blame by saying they have no way of monitoring or controlling the entire supply chain.

When blame is deflected down a supply chain, nobody is held accountable and labor exploitation can continue unchallenged.

Enter the Nestlé lawsuit

If the federal court in California decides that Nestle is responsible for perpetuating child labor, it could provide a legal precedent and template for future child labor lawsuits.

Beyond vindicating and compensating the victims of each particular case, such lawsuits have the potential to reform industry supply chains.

If corporations realize they could be held responsible for child labor violations in other countries, they may begin to vet who they’re doing business with better and demand an end to worker exploitation.

Many suppliers will then have no choice but to reform, unless they want to lose a primary source of revenue.

One of the chief problems of globalization is that it allows companies to always direct blame elsewhere, to push it further down the supply chain, because countries have different laws and are corrupt to varying degrees.

If corporations are held accountable for injustices, then, theoretically, worker conditions could begin to improve around the world.

This would then lead to a decline in extreme poverty.

The impact on poverty

Okay, okay. This chain of events seems unlikely. But it’s not impossible. Above all, it highlights the need for someone to be held accountable and punished for worker violations around the world.

When nobody is held accountable, nothing changes. When some entity is held accountable, then something inevitably changes. And if history repeats itself, improved regulation (and implementation) of working conditions leads to safer work environments, higher wages and an overall improvement in quality of life for workers.

The plaintiffs in the case against Nestlé lost their youth to abuse out in cocoa fields in Ivory Coast. They’re not trying to become rich. They’re trying to make sure no other child has to suffer the way they did. Because every child deserves a childhood and a future.