The US Supreme Court has dismissed claims that food firms Nestlé and Cargill perpetuated child slavery.
International Rights Advocates sued Nestlé and Cargill on behalf of six former child slaves trafficked from Mali to Cote D’Ivoire to harvest cocoa. The ruling comes 16 years after the case was filed.
They alleged that although the companies do not own or operate coca farms in Cote D’Ivoire, Nestlé and Cargill made major operational decisions from the US that supported the system of child slavey in harvesting cocoa.
Nestlé and Cargill were sued under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which provides federal courts jurisdiction to hear claims brought “by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”.
However, the court dismissed the suit as insufficient to satisfy the standard set for extraterritorial application of the ATS. Justice Thomas said: “Nearly all the conduct that they say aided and abetted forced labour, providing training, fertiliser, tools, and cash to overseas farms occurred in Ivory Coast.”
International Rights Advocates said the court had issued “a heavily divided opinion with an unclear result”, saying although the ATS application failed, there appeared to be a majority consensus that corporations can be sued under international law.
The group said a recent study commissioned by the US Department of Labor showed an estimated 1.56 million children worked in cocoa production in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana.
In 2001, large chocolate manufacturers and cocoa producers signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, promising to voluntarily end use of enslaved children. However this has failed to happen, International Rights Advocates said.
Terry Collingsworth, executive director at International Rights Advocates, said: “None of the Justices and none of parties deny that children like the plaintiffs continue to suffer the horrors of trafficking and slavery.
“We do hope that rather than fight this for several more years and spend additional millions of dollars on lawyers, lobbyists and public relations firms, Nestlé and Cargill decide to use their power and resources to finally stop relying on child labour, as they promised to do so when they signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001.”
A Nestlé spokesperson said: “The Supreme Court agreed there is no basis for this lawsuit to proceed against Nestlé. We never engaged in the egregious child labour alleged in this suit, and we remain unwavering in our dedication to combating child labour in the cocoa industry and to our ongoing work with partners in government, NGOs and industry to tackle this complex, global issue.”
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