A U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to hold Nestle, the world's largest food maker, accountable for using child slaves to harvest cocoa in Africa looks set to be a landmark battle over labor used overseas, lawyers said.
The ruling sends the case back to federal court in California and brings closer the possibility of a trial, said Terrence Collingsworth, executive director at International Rights Advocates who is involved in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed against Nestle, Archer Daniels Midland Co and Cargill Inc. by former child slavery victims originally from Mali in West Africa. The case dates back to 2005.
Their lawsuit claims that, aware of the child slavery problem, the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers in a bid to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa.
The plaintiffs, who claimed they were held captive, beaten and forced to work long hours with no pay, "are delighted that their long saga has moved an important step closer to resolution," Collingsworth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"On behalf of current and former child slaves in the cocoa sector in West Africa, the plaintiffs hope their case will help to end this inhumane practice," Collingsworth said.
Specifically, the Supreme Court left in place a 2014 Appeals Court ruling that refused to dismiss the case.
"It is a victory," said Marco Simons, a legal expert at EarthRights International in Washington, D.C. "There's still several steps to go before trial, but it's certainly moving forward."
The case focused in part on how lower court judges have interpreted a 2013 Supreme Court decision that made it harder for plaintiffs to sue corporations in U.S. courts for abuses alleged to have occurred overseas.
In that 2013 case, the high court threw out a lawsuit by 12 Nigerians accusing Royal Dutch Shell Plc of aiding state-sponsored torture and murder.
U.S. companies facing similar suits have had considerable success fending off such cases by citing the 2013 ruling.
Collingsworth said lawyers in the lawsuit against Nestle will amend their case to argue that U.S. law can extend to conduct overseas.
"So we will amend our complaint and we'll see if the defendants want to try to dismiss it again, but we're hoping we are moving closer to getting to trial," Collingsworth said.
Nestle, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, said the Supreme Court's announcement was not based on merits of the case and it believes "very strongly that the law and facts are on our side."
"The use of child labor is unacceptable and goes against everything Nestlé stands for," the company said in a statement. "Nestlé is committed to following and respecting all international laws and is dedicated to the goal of eradicating child labor from our cocoa supply chain."
Nestle has made broad efforts to reduce child labor in its cocoa, hazelnut and vanilla supply chains by training farmers, building schools, monitoring production and other methods, according to its website.
A report in September by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) found growing awareness of the child labor issue in Ivory Coast in response to Nestle's efforts but said more needed to be done to educate farmers to end the practice.
Visiting a sampling of farms used by Nestle, the FLA found dozens of workers under age 18, many of them younger than 15 and not attending school.
Simons said human rights cases such as the Nestle case can act as a deterrent, showing that violations are not profitable.
"Other companies don't want to find themselves in this situation," he said.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)