On July 14, 2005, three former child slaves filed a class action lawsuit in California federal court against Nestlé, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland for being trafficked and forced to work on the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast. The lawsuits seek to hold the companies liable for the torture, forced labour, and arbitrary detention they suffered as child slaves under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victim Protection Act, the U.S. Constitution, and California state law. The lawsuit also claims the companies’ profiting from the labor of children violates international labour conventions, the law of nations, and customary international law.
In August 2005, the companies’ delay and obfuscation strategy began when Nestlé filed a motion to force the disclosure of the names of the former child slave plaintiffs. Naturally, defendants also filed a motion to dismiss the case. After extensive briefing on various issues, the court dismissed the case finding that it could not be brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Plaintiffs appealed.
In December 2013, a federal appeals court overturned the 2010 ruling and allowed the plaintiffs to refile their lawsuit. The appellate court’s ultimate decision relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Kiobel v. Shell in finding that the plaintiffs have standing to bring their Alien Tort case because of the universal prohibition against slavery. In September 2014, the court gave the plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint to show the connection their claims have to the United States.
In September 2015, the companies petitioned the Supreme Court to throw out the federal appeals court’s ruling. In January 2016, the Supreme Court declined to hear the companies’ appeal and so after 11 years, the lawsuit is back were it started. Meanwhile, things have gone from bad to worse for the child slaves of West Africa.
Fair Trade International reported on August 4, 2015, that the “2013/2014 Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa-Growing Areas released last week by the Tulane University shows that child labor in cocoa production is on the rise in West Africa.” The July 30, 2015 “Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas” prepared by the Payson Center for International Development of Tulane University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor reports that “the numbers of children working in cocoa production, in child labor in cocoa production, and in hazardous work in cocoa production have increased from 2008/09 to 2013/14,” with the number of children doing hazardous work in cocoa production growing by 46%.
More specifically, the 2015 Payson Report found that during the time period from 2013 to 2014 over 1.1 million children in the Ivory Coast were engaged in the most common Worst Forms of Child Labor, hazardous work, including the use of dangerous tools, transport of heavy loads, and exposure to pesticides. This was up from the 791,181 children engaged in such work at the time of the last survey in 2008 to 2009.
The companies know their behavior is wrong. They claim to prohibit and reject forced labor in their supply chains, yet they know it is rampant. Even as Nestle admits that child labor taints its products, it has spent over a decade and millions of dollars funding its ingenious defense to the lawsuit, while offering nothing for the children. In so doing, these companies have utterly failed an entire generation of West African children on whose backs their profits are made.