It’s Juneteenth, but these American companies are still profiting from slavery (commentary)
- Samuel Mawutor, forest campaign group Mighty Earth’s Senior Advisor for Africa, argues that while June 19th marks the official end of slavery in the Confederacy, American agribusiness companies are still engaging in practices analogous to slavery in their commodity supply chains.
- Mawutor specifically calls out Cargill, which he says isn’t doing enough to address labor abuses in its cocoa supply chain.
- “The cocoa sector is notorious for its widespread use of child labor and other abuses– so much so that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, groups from both cocoa producing and consuming countries signed an open letter on racial injustice in the cocoa sector,” Mawutor writes. “It is estimated that 1.56 million children work in the cocoa industry; many are forced to use dangerous tools and chemicals and carry enormous weights, in direct violation of international labor standards, the UN convention on child labor, and domestic laws.”
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 where an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were freed, marking the official end of slavery in the Confederacy – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and six months before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution finally banned slavery nationwide.
As much as Juneteenth is worthy of celebration, liberation is not complete. In our work, the most egregious and direct manifestation of that delayed justice is that American companies and institutions are continuing to drive slavery today at scale. The Emancipation Proclamation may have made it to Texas in 1865, but some companies are acting today as if it still doesn’t apply in their corporate suites. And on Wednesday, those companies got a free pass from the Supreme Court to continue the profit from slavery.
There is probably no company that better symbolizes continued complicity with slavery than Cargill, America’s largest privately-held company and the world’s largest agribusiness. Cargill isn’t a household name, but it’s bigger than even Koch industries, and sits astride much of America and the world’s food system.
Cargill sells the chicken, beef, palm oil, corn, grain, cocoa and many other raw ingredients that’s found in much of what’s sold in supermarkets and restaurants. You may not know it, but you’re probably eating a Cargill product today. For instance, it’s actually Cargill that makes chicken McNuggets and Big Mac patties – and then just sends them to McDonald’s to be warmed up. The company has a terrible and well-documented record of driving destruction of forests, causing outsized climate pollution, and displacing Indigeneous communities.
While the company has many rotten elements, one of the worst is its role in the chocolate industry. Cargill’s agents go out into cocoa-growing regions in West Africa to purchase cocoa and finance expansion of cocoa operations, and then sell that cocoa to large chocolate companies like Nestle, Hershey’s and Mars.
The cocoa sector is notorious for its widespread use of child labor and other abuses– so much so that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, groups from both cocoa producing and consuming countries signed an open letter on racial injustice in the cocoa sector. It is estimated that 1.56 million children work in the cocoa industry; many are forced to use dangerous tools and chemicals and carry enormous weights, in direct violation of international labor standards, the UN convention on child labor, and domestic laws.
While a majority of the child laborers in the cocoa industry are living and working on their parents’ farms, at least 16,000 children, and perhaps many more, are victims of forced labor– a euphemism for slavery, working on West African cocoa farms far from home. The Washington Post recently did a series of exposés about the extent of this problem and how Cargill and other companies had continued purchases linked to forced child labor for decades after pledging to work to end it.
Indeed, most cocoa farmers in West Africa earn less than one dollar per day as they grow the raw ingredients that go into Kit-Kats, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, and Nesquik chocolate milk. Living in some of the worst poverty in the world, Cargill and others finance the use of toxic chemicals that create health risks, while overall poverty contributes to related problems such as low life expectancy rates, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Farmers face tremendous obstacles in sending their children to school.
It’s worth saying today that all of these children are Black and the chocolate companies are run largely by comfortable American and European executives who seem unable to gird themselves to take sufficient action to end their companies’ continued connection to Black slavery more than 150 years after the Civil War.
As a result, a group of formerly enslaved children from Mali sued Cargill and Nestle for buying cocoa from the owners of the farms where they worked under brutal conditions. The plaintiffs provided evidence that Cargill and Nestle representatives had visited the farms, and that the companies had provided financial and technical assistance in exchange for exclusive access to their crops. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Act which can be used to bring legal accountability for human rights violations and other breaches of international law.
Unfortunately, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs needed to provide more information to establish their standing to sue, giving Cargill and Nestle at least temporary impunity for their complicity in conditions of slavery. However, the plaintiffs are planning to refile their suit in ways that meet the standards laid out by the Court, though any successful legal action is likely to take years more – cold comfort for the formerly enslaved children.
That doesn’t mean these companies can’t be held accountable. For those looking to go beyond symbolic action on this Juneteenth, consider ways to bring pressure to bear on these companies. Send a message to chocolate companies like Nestle, Hershey’s and Mars asking them to end their connections to slavery. Consider how companies are performing on slavery and child labor when you purchase chocolate – our buying guide is a way to do that. And contact your legislators to urge them to ban import of cocoa and other agricultural goods connected to egregious human rights and environmental abuses.
So today, celebrate Juneteenth for the progress it brought, but continue the fight against American companies’ ongoing contributions to Black slavery.