On Thursday (June 17), the Supreme Court ruled that American chocolate companies couldn’t be sued for child slavery on the West African cocoa farms where they source most of their cocoa. The ruling didn’t say that a lawsuit could never go forward, though.
According to The Washington Post, the Supreme Court’s ruling came after a lawsuit was brought forward by six men in Mali against Nestlé USA and Cargill argued that the companies needed to better monitor the labor practices of their suppliers. The men said children are being trafficked out of Mali and forced to work in West African cocoa farms –– where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown.
At hand for the Supreme Court to decide was if Malians reserve the right to sue the companies for their suppliers’ alleged labor practices. More broadly, the issue is to determine the circumstances in which people not from the US can sue American companies for actions of their overseas supply chains.
The lawsuit by the six men came citing the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal district courts to hear “any civil action by [a foreigner] for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Until the 1980s, when lawyers started using the law to push international human rights cases, the law hadn’t really been used. The Supreme Court imposed restrictions on the circumstances when the law could be applied in 2004. In the past 25 years, the law has reportedly been used in 150 lawsuits against US companies.
The companies deny engaging in forced child labor though the men’s lawsuit claims Nestlé and others should take responsibility for its business decisions that lead to the child labor.
“We believe they controlled the system of child forced labor in the Ivory Coast from the United States,” Paul Hoffman, an attorney for the Malians, told The Post.
“Nestlé never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit,” the company said in a statement. “[W]e remain unwavering in our dedication to combatting child labor in the cocoa industry.”
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the companies this week, stating that the conduct alleged by the lawsuit all took place in Ivory Coast, not the US.
“Nearly all the conduct that they said aided and abetted forced labor –– providing training, fertilizer, tools, and cash to overseas farms –– occurred in Ivory Coast,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.
An investigation by The Post estimates forced child labor is a widespread practice in the cocoa industry and that some American companies couldn’t guarantee that their products weren’t made from the labor of an estimated 1.6 million children. For two decades, companies have vowed to eradicate the use of forced child labor, though it is still a widely-used industry practice.