A federal appeals court in San Francisco today reinstated a lawsuit filed by three citizens of Mali who say they were forced to work as child slaves on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Los Angeles in 2005 against Nestle USA and parent company Nestle SA of Switzerland, Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Chicago and Cargill Inc. of Minnesota.
It was dismissed by a federal trial judge in 2010, but restored today by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has recently cut back on lawsuits filed against American corporations for alleged actions on foreign soil, the appeals court said the case could proceed because a prohibition against slavery is a universal international norm.
“We conclude that the prohibition against slavery is universal and may be asserted against the corporate defendants in this case….There are no rules exempting acts of enslavement carried out on behalf of a corporation,” the panel said.
The three men, who want their suit to be a class action on behalf of all Mali citizens who were child slaves in Ivory Coast, allege the corporations aided and abetted child slavery by giving money, training and equipment to Ivorian farmers who used them as forced laborers in the 1990s.
They say they were taken to plantations when they were between 12 and 14 years old, forced to work up to 14 hours a day six days per week, given scraps of food, locked up at night and beaten and whipped when overseers thought they weren’t working hard enough.
The lawsuit was filed under the federal Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which allows civil lawsuits for acts outside the United States “committed in violation of the law of nations.”
The nation of Ivory Coast supplies 70 percent of the world’s supply of cocoa, and the three chocolate-manufacturing companies dominate the market for that cocoa, according to the lawsuit.
The court said that for purposes of allowing a trial, the plaintiffs had adequately alleged the companies knew that a quest for the cheap production costs would support child slavery and that they failed to use their leverage to stop slavery.
“The allegations suggest that a myopic focus on profit over human welfare drove the defendants to act with the purpose of obtaining the cheapest cocoa possible, even if it meant facilitating child slavery,” Circuit Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote.
But the panel said the plaintiffs must amend their lawsuit in the federal trial court with more specific claims of a causal link between the corporations’ alleged actions and the use of child slavery.
Whether the companies in fact abetted child slavery would be determined by a trial, if one is held.
Catherine Sweetser, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said “It’s a very important ruling in terms of holding corporations accountable.
“The court has reestablished that corporations can be held accountable for making decisions in the United States that affect human rights in foreign countries,” she said.
Archer Daniels Midlands spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said, “We disagree with the panel’s decision.” She said the company expects to appeal the ruling to an expanded 11-judge panel of the circuit court.
A Nestle spokesman was not available for comment.
The company’s website says that in 2002, Nestle became a founding participant in the International Cocoa Initiative, a foundation “dedicated to ending child and forced labor in cocoa growing, and eliminating child trafficking and abusive labor practices.”
Julia Cheever, Bay City News