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US Supreme Court rejects Nestlé appeal

Helena Humphrey January 11, 2016

Nestlé remains at the center of a child slavery case in Ivory Coast, as the US Supreme Court refuses to hear the appeal from the world's largest food producer and two other multinational giants.

Verarbeitung von Kakao an der Elfenbeinküste
Image: imago/Xinhua

The US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Nestlé and two other multinationals on Monday, to throw out a child slavery suit against them.

Nestlé, the world's largest food producer, alongside commodity giants Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland are accused of aiding and abetting the use of children as slaves to harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast.

The case was brought forward by former victims of child slavery who are originally from Mali.

Monday's decision not to hear the appeal keeps in place a 2014 verdict from the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit of Appeals Court, which rejected the appeal from the three companies.

Those who filed the case say that the companies facilitated human rights violations by buying cocoa from Ivory Coast despite knowing that child slavery was deeply entrenched in the multi-billion dollar chocolate industry. They also allege that the companies provided financial and technical assistance to the local farmers in order to ensure that the price of cocoa remained as low as possible.

In its bid for an appeal, Nestlé cited a 2013 ruling from the Supreme Court which kicked a case out of court because it cited the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, which was presumed to cover only violations of international law occurring in the United States. Some US companies have had success in legal battles citing the ruling.

Long running case

Nestlé reacted with disappointment to Monday's decision from the Supreme Court. In a written statement to DW, the company said that "the Supreme Court very well may hear this case at a later date. The announcement simply means that lower courts will have to engage in further proceedings first." It added: "We look forward to those proceedings in the lower courts, and believe very strongly that the law and facts are on our side."

The firm also called the use of child labor "unacceptable," and said it "goes against everything Nestlé stands for."

However Abby McGill, Campaigns Director at the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum told DW that "a recent study [had] shown that 2.1 million children in Ivory Coast and Ghana [were] still involved in forced labor in the cocoa industry." Nestlé, she said, was among the companies buying that cocoa.

The International Labor Rights Forum initially aided the plaintiffs build their case against the multinationals but is no longer involved. McGill called the Supreme Court's decision "a step in the right direction for corporate accountability."

The case comes despite several public announcements from Nestlé over the years declaring its intentions to tackle child slavery in Ivory Coast. In 2001, the multinational was among a group of major chocolate producers to sign an international agreement aimed at ending child labor. Ten years later, Nestlé engaged the Fair Labor Association to monitor its supply chains throughout Ivory Coast.

Fruitless efforts

McGill said that, so far, these efforts have not been fruitful "because they are not focused on improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers, who are so poor they are unable to provide workers with a living wage."

She called for a critical look into the efficacy of multinationals programs to deal with exploitation within the cocoa industry, and urged that regulators focus on the "traceability" within the multi-dollar business.

The full case against Nestlé, Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland should now be heard in full at the US lower courts. Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland could not be reached for comment.