Three of the world’s leading food companies are to face a lawsuit in the United States over child slavery in the Ivory Coast after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to dismiss the lawsuit.
Nestle, Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill are being sued for turning a blind eye and contributing to human rights violations by purchasing cocoa from the Ivory Coast in full knowledge of the country’s child slavery problem.
The Supreme Court decision Monday backs up a 2014 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that had also refused to dismiss the lawsuit against them.
The lawsuit was filed by three people in 2005, claiming they had been trafficked from Mali as children and forced to work harvesting cocoa beans without pay that was eventually sold to the world’s biggest chocolate producers.
The action by the three individuals says that the child laborers were overworked and faced physical abuse including whipping.
The plaintiffs said they were kept in locked rooms when not working and were fed only scraps of food, according to court documents. One plaintiff described guards slicing open the feet of child workers trying to escape.
The accusers claim the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers to guarantee cheap cocoa—and benefited economically from violating international labor conventions and law.
A 2015 report by the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association found evidence of forced and child labor in Ivory Coast farms used by Nestle during a number of unannounced visits the previous year.
The lawsuit says the companies violated several laws in the U.S. including the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATS), Torture Victim Protection Act as well as the U.S. Constitution and California state law.
The Supreme Court said the dismissal was rejected because the plaintiffs succeeded in proving the companies violated the universal prohibition against slavery through the Alien Tort Claims Act, a U.S. law allowing foreign citizens to seek remedies in U.S. courts for human rights violations for conduct committed outside the United States.
Activists welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court but said there was a long way to go before justice is delivered to the victims.
“Every time you eat their chocolate you are benefitting from child slavery,” Patti Rundall, policy director at campaign group at International Baby Food Action Network, told The Independent newspaper.
“There is very little cocoa production that isn’t sourced in a bad way and it will take a long time to change that due to the nature of large corporations.“
Several business groups in the U.S., including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that ruling in favor of the plaintiffs violated “corporate human rights.”
"Some judges might genuinely desire that U.S. companies stop doing business with cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), perhaps hoping that such non-participation would benefit local farmers and children,” the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in the U.S. wrote in a statement to the Supreme Court.
“That foreign affairs decision, however, is not the judiciary’s to make, and the ATS certainly is not a tool that private parties may wield to dictate foreign policy," the statement added.
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