September 2, Washington, D.C.–This week, agriculture giants Nestlé and Cargill submitted briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases Nestlé USA Inc. vs John Doe 1 and Cargill Inc. v. John Doe 1 arguing that they have immunity from responsibility for human rights abuses alleged by former child slave laborers on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast of Africa. The plaintiffs sued under the federal Alien Tort Statute, which allows lawsuits for violations of international law.
Marco Simons, General Counsel of the human rights and climate justice organization EarthRights International issued the following statement in response:
“Nestlé and Cargill are trying to avoid legal responsibility for slave labor, claiming that because they are corporations, they simply cannot be held responsible. Even though slavery has been banned by international law since the 19th Century, they argue that only human beings–not corporations–can be sued for slavery. So even if they profit from child slavery, the children who escape this bondage cannot hold them accountable.
“The majority of the world’s cocoa supply is grown on the Ivory Coast, supplying vast amounts to companies like Nestlé and Cargill, leading manufacturers of chocolate. According to the plaintiffs, the companies were aware that plantations in their supply chains used child slave labor. Both companies hold enormous sway over the industry there and had plenty of leverage to stop the abuses. The companies had exclusive buying contracts with cocoa growers, regularly visited cacao plantations, and provided financial support, training, and farm supplies. The children who escaped this system sued them, arguing that the companies could have stopped the use of forced labor, but did not.
“Corporations argue that they are ‘persons’ when it suits them, like when they want to influence elections, or avoid obligations to provide healthcare to women. But when it comes to accountability for severe abuses, they claim that only actual human beings can be held responsible. Corporations do not get immunity from civil suits based on a host of other torts, including simple negligence. So why should they be entitled to immunity for serious human rights violations?
“If Nestle and Cargill prevail in this case, it will set a dangerous precedent, moving corporations one step closer to total impunity for profiting from human rights abuses.”
In 2005, with the help of the U.S. NGO International Rights Advocates (IRA), the plaintiffs — who have remained anonymous for safety reasons–sued Nestlé USA and Cargill in U.S. courts. They allege that they were trafficked to Mali where they were forced to work as slaves on plantations that supply cocoa to the agriculture giants, enduring torture and work without pay. Though both companies have since updated their human rights policies and strengthened oversight of their supply chains, they have never compensated the victims. A 2019 investigation by the Washington Post revealed that child labor remains a problem in the Ivory Coast. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October 2018 that Nestlé and Cargill couldn’t avoid the lawsuits. In July 2020, The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the cases at the request of the two companies, the Trump administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. The Court is expected to hold oral arguments as early as December of this year. In addition to IRA, the plaintiffs are represented by Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP.