Nestlé and other companies can be sued for overseas child slave labor, court rules
Nestlé and other counties that sell chocolate from Africa can be sued for using child slave labor, a federal appeals court ruled.
Three former slave laborers sued the food manufacturer, along with Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, under a 1789 law allowing lawsuits in U.S. courts for violations of international human rights.
A federal judge in Los Angeles previously dismissed the suit, ruling the law did not apply to U.S. corporations allegedly involved in illegal activities abroad.
But the appeals court found they could be sued if their conduct on U.S. soil substantially contributed to human rights violations overseas, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the companies were aware from their own frequent visits and independent studies that they were selling the products of child labor.
They justified this by arguing they were simply “finding the cheapest sources of cocoa,” the court found.
The three companies dominate the cocoa market in the Ivory Coast, which produces 70 percent of the world’s supply, but the court found they did nothing to end child slavery.
Instead, the court found, the domestic chocolate industry successfully lobbied Congress to defeat a bill in 2001 that would have required all U.S. importers and manufacturers to certify that their products were “slave free.”
The three companies “effectively control the production of Ivorian cocoa” due to their financial and technical assistance, the court found.
“Viewed alongside the allegation that the defendants benefitted from the use of child slavery, the defendants’ failure to stop or limit child slavery supports the inference that they intended to keep that system in place,” the appeals court ruled.
The three plaintiffs claimed in their suit they were forced to work up to 14 hours a day, six days a week, and were beaten and whipped and given scraps to eat.
They were between 12 and 20 years old at the time, between 1994 and 2000.
The companies “placed increased revenues before basic human welfare,” wrote Judge Dorothy Nelson in a 2-1 ruling. “The prohibition against slavery is universal and may be asserted against the corporate defendants in this case.”
Judge Johnnie Rawlinson argued in her dissent that the suit’s claims failed to show the companies “acted with the purpose to aid and abet child slave labor.”
She agreed with the majority that the plaintiffs could revise their suit, but she still doubted it would meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s standards for liability.
The high court dismissed a 2013 case against Shell Oil that claimed the company aided the Nigerian government’s brutal suppression of protesters, in a ruling that narrowed the liability of American corporations under the 1789 law.
Nestlé and the other corporations could ask the appeals court for a new ruling or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.