A federal class action suit filed on behalf of eight Malian citizens against Nestle SA, Cargill, Hershey and Mars, Inc. among others for their alleged complicity in the trafficking and forced labor of African children, is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs are former child slaves trafficked from Mali to harvest cocoa beans in Côte d’Ivoire, the biggest exporter and producer. They claim they were forced to work long hours on Ivory Coast cocoa farms and kept in locked shacks at night––often for several years or more––with no pay, no travel documents and no clear idea of where they were or how to get back to their families. They finally managed to escape and return to Mali.
Their attorneys argue that the companies should have better monitored their cocoa suppliers in West Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown and child labor is widespread. The case is based on a law that allows victims to sue companies that participate in a venture that benefits from trafficking and forced labor.
As there are no laws in Mali to aid the plaintiffs in seeking damages or civil remedies against foreign exporters, they brought their claims under U.S. law, specifically the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the Alien Torts Statute.
In 2001, the chocolate manufacturers signed an international agreement called the Harkin-Engel Protocol to reduce child labor in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire by 2005. The World Cocoa Foundation, an industry body to which all the defendants belong, now aims to achieve the target by 2025.
A central allegation of the lawsuit is that the defendants, despite not owning the cocoa farms in question, “knowingly profited” from the illegal work of children. According to the submissions, the defendants’ contracted suppliers were able to provide lower prices than if they had employed adult workers with proper protective equipment.
“The business practices of these companies clearly have contributed to the use of forced and child labor in West Africa,” said Charity Ryerson, an attorney for the Corporate Accountability Lab who has traveled to Africa to investigate cocoa practices.
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has determined that the number of enslaved child laborers working in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana has gradually increased to over 1.56 million, implying the efforts purported by the chocolate companies to reduce child labor were bogus misrepresentations.
Nestlé USA and Cargill have responded that they, too, deplore child slavery and trafficking, and that they have taken steps to eradicate such practices among their suppliers.
The companies have asked the Supreme Court to toss the lawsuit, arguing that courts in the United States are the wrong forum for the Malians’ complaint and that the applicable law permits such cases against individuals but not corporations.