Supreme Court refuses to hold chocolate giants responsible for child and slave labor

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Chocolate bars. They evoke the happiness and sweet pleasures of childhood. What made the irony bitter when the Supreme Court refused to hold the chocolatiers accountable for their links with child labor and slave labor.

Many cocoa farmers in West Africa, the source of about 70% of the world’s cocoa, are engaged in human trafficking and child labor, including child slavery. Consumers may not be aware of it, but no one in the industry is arguing. A key factor is that cocoa prices do not cover the cost of production – and it’s no wonder: farmers only earn 6.6 percent of the price of a bar of chocolate and many live in it themselves. poverty.

Nestlé USA and Cargill – the defendants in the Supreme Court case – use terms like “unacceptable”, “blatant” and “heartbreaking” to describe cruel labor practices, but they haven’t used their economic might to terminate them or even root them out of their own supply chains.

When six Malians filed a lawsuit against the two companies in 2005, alleging that they had been enslaved as children to work on the cocoa plantations, they described working long hours without pay, suffering from hunger, dangerous working conditions and brutal beatings. They claimed that the companies, without owning or operating the plantations where they worked, knowingly aided and abetted human rights violations by providing slave farmers with tools and technical and financial resources, and by purchasing their products.

They based their action on the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows foreigners to sue in US courts for violation of international law. From the outset, the question was whether or not this law applied in the present case; in other words, rather than recognizing and legally treating their role in the conduct of child slavery, companies argued that there should be no accountability for US companies whose practices contribute to abuses. human rights.

Companies won the battle but not the wider war they were waging: the court found the connection between these particular companies and these particular workers too tenuous, but said companies can still be held accountable for such abuses by under ATS law. However, by setting a high bar for eligibility, the Supreme Court ruling signals that those who have suffered human rights abuses will find it harder than ever to seek redress for the wrongdoing of American companies through the ATS.

The Supreme Court ruling coincides with the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—A framework that sets out the duty of states to protect human rights, the responsibility of businesses to respect these rights, and access to remedies to which victims of business-related abuse are entitled. The third element of the framework, access to remedies, has been dubbed the “lost pillar” as targets of corporate abuse around the world struggle to find redress.

In an Orwellian feat of double talk, Nestle and Cargill are committed to respecting the guiding principles but have filed briefs arguing that allowing lawsuits like this could hurt US competitiveness.

In the history of chocolate, the echoes of colonialism are undeniable. The companies involved try to project today’s sensibilities with smooth posts about their commitment to fight child labor, but the trafficked and enslaved children who harvest the cocoa beans for their chocolate bars might as well live two centuries ago. Is it “American competitiveness” for which businesses should be fighting and our highest court defended?

Malians will have the opportunity to strengthen their case and present it again, but the question remains: Why are the companies that have agreed on the principle of remedies fighting so hard to stop the applicants for remedies in their tracks?

Companies must recognize the damage they have caused, take action to repair it, and commit to adopting business practices that enable cocoa farmers to make a living.

Only then can we hope for an end to labor practices that risk and ruin children’s lives.


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