By now, it’s no secret that making chocolate can be a dirty business in, like, the human-rights-violations sense. For years, advocates have complained that Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey do precious little to ensure their candy isn’t produced via child slavery, which remains a disturbingly common practice in Africa. Consumers have filed lawsuits against the companies (plus others, like Chiquita and Coca-Cola, accused of turning a blind eye to child workers on fruit and sugar-cane farms, respectively), but none of them have ever faced trials. Now there’s a possibility that could change if a federal judge recognizes the standing of six men now in their 20s and 30s who used to be enslaved on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.
Their case has actually been winding its way through the justice system for 12 years, but won a surprise victory last January when the Supreme Court refused to dismiss it.
Child Slavery Claims Against Nestle, Cargill Get One More Chance
Six men forced into slavery as boys to harvest cocoa pods have a second chance to go after some of the world’s biggest chocolate companies in U.S. court, saying the companies should have known their suppliers used forced labor.
They’re asking a federal judge in Los Angeles to allow their 12-year-old case to go ahead, even though their alleged captivity was in Ivory Coast. They say Nestle SA and Cargill Inc. employees in the U.S. knew of the forced labor but didn’t take steps to stop it, so they should be able to sue in an American court.
Allowing the former slaves to sue in the U.S. over human rights abuses overseas would reverse years of precedents won by Chevron Corp., Coco-Cola Co. and other multinationals. If Nestle and Cargill can’t get the case thrown out, other companies might face a new wave of expensive, drawn-out lawsuits over suppliers’ alleged misdeeds.
“You can see that would open the door to a flood of new cases,” said John Bellinger III, who as a lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the six from revising their lawsuit.
Nestle and Cargill contend a series of Supreme Court rulings bar foreigners from bringing human rights cases under a law that had lain dormant for almost 200 years, until activists re-purposed it to sue over abuses in places such as Colombia, Nigeria and Myanmar. Terry Collingsworth, the cocoa workers’ lawyer, contends the justices left just enough room to get a foot in the door if the alleged aiding and abetting occurred in the U.S.