The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Nestlé and Cargill cannot be sued in the U.S. for child slavery that takes place on farms they buy cocoa from in Africa. The lawsuit details the claims of six men from Mali who were trafficked to the Ivory Coast as children and forced to work on cocoa farms. The men say that they were forced to work 12-14 hour days and that an armed guard watched them while they slept to prevent them from escaping. Their attorney argues that the two companies should have monitored working conditions on their cocoa supplier farms more closely. The plaintiffs further allege that since the companies provide training and support to their suppliers, they have aided and abetted child slavery.
The Court concluded that the case falls outside its jurisdiction because the abuse happened in a different country. However, there were hopes that the Court would recognize and use the Alien Tort Act (ATS) that requires companies based in the U.S. to be held accountable for abuse happening within their supply chain. Nestle has refuted any involvement and stated that “[we] remain unwavering in our dedication to combatting child labour in the cocoa industry.”
Forced labour, child trafficking, and slavery are ongoing and serious issues in the cocoa industry. According to the International Labour Organization, working on a cacao farm is extremely hazardous, and many children are separated from their families and forced to work this precarious job. In 2001, several companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol and committed to reducing the worst forms of child labour by 2020. Yet one study found that the proportion of children working on cocoa farms and living in cocoa households has increased. It is estimated that around 1.6 to 2 million children work in cacao farms in West Africa.
Much of the farming of cacao needs to be done by hand, therefore, there is a great need for workers. The researcher Michael Odijie argues that the main reason for using child labour is deforestation. He explains that deforestation leads to changes in production that significantly increased the need for labour. Cacao is usually farmed on forestland, and once a plot is exhausted, the farmers move on to the next plot. This has led to deforestation and when deforestation increases, labor migration decreases. To farm on such plots is harder and more labour is needed yet less is available. One thing that probably drives the change in farming is the increased demand for cacao and the pressuring of prices. Notably, cocoa demand and production have increased significantly over the last 10 years.
The increased demand and pressure to keep prices low are two factors that are contributing to this issue. The NGO, Food is Freedom, says that cocoa farmers do not earn a livable wage and therefore often use child labour to keep their prices competitive. They go on to point out that consumers play an important role in this. As part of their Food Empowerment Project, they have compiled a list of chocolate brands they recommend people buy based on where the cocoa is sourced.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the two companies: Nestlé and Cargill. They cannot be sued within the U.S. for abuse that takes place in their supply chains abroad. This is a loss not only for the six original plaintiffs in the lawsuit but also for those who are trying to keep large corporations responsible for the abuse they are benefiting from and enabling. Consumers should engage in ‘buycott’ by choosing chocolate brands that are transparent about where they source their cocoa from.