The Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed the suit on behalf of three Malian children who were allegedly trafficked to work on plantations in Ivory Coast.
"It is unconscionable that Nestle, ADM and Cargill have ignored repeated and well-documented warnings over the past several years that the farms they were using to grow cocoa employed child slave laborers. We had to go to court as a last resort," said ILRF attorney, Natacha Thys.
The companies cited are set to fight the suit.
"We will energetically defend our case and are confident we will win," a Nestle spokesperson told FoodNavigator.com.
More than 70 per cent of the world's €3.6bn cocoa market originates in West Africa.
Grown on approximately 1.5 million small, family-run farms, more than 10 million Africans depend upon cocoa for their well-being. In the Ivory Coast, cocoa supplies more than 50 per cent of household income, cites the ILRF.
But the issue of child labour is at the centre of the Harkin-Engel protocol signed in 2001 by chocolate and cocoa industry representatives (Cargill, ADM and Nestle members of signatory organisations) to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.
The idea behind the agreement is to develop a voluntary, industry-wide standard of public certification, monitored by non-industry, that includes putting a stop to hazardous working conditions, and ensuring that working children do not miss out on an education.
But achieving this objective requires decent partnership between major stakeholders, notably the countries' governments, the cocoa industry and non-governmental organisations.
The 1 July, 2005 deadline to complete the certification system has since expired; with the system not yet up and running.
But according to industry, the commitment to produce a certification system is still present, with certain steps already accomplished.
"While we would like to be further along than we are in this effort, the building blocks are in place today for the development of a certification system," said Lynn Bragg, president, Chocolate Manufacturers Association and David Zimmer, Secretary General of Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit & Confectionery Industries of the EU (CAOBISCO) in a joint statement.
Steps already taken towards the protocol, named after its key proponents US Senator Harkin and Representative Engel, include the creation of the International Cocoa Initiative foundation, which is now beginning to form partnerships with NGOs to provide social protection programmes in West Africa.
Failing to meet the July deadline the industry assured Sen. Harkin and Rep. Engel that it is "fully committed to achieving a certification system", that will cover 50 per cent of the cocoa growing areas of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana by 2008.
"I am disappointed that the July 1 deadline established in the Protocol was not fully met," said senator Harkin.
"But I am pleased that they have committed to redouble their efforts to create a certification system," he added.