The U.S. Supreme Court draws the line at child slavery. Almost always in the corner, if not the vest pocket, of big business, the court on Monday rejected a bid by Nestle and other food giants Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland to dismiss a suit brought by plaintiffs from Mali who had been child slaves in Ivory Coast, where their labor was used to harvest the cacao beans used to make chocolate.
If you are unfamiliar with the fact of cacao slavery, here is a too-brief introduction. Ivory Coast is a country of coffee and cocoa farms. In fact, the coffee bushes are often grown in the shade of the cocoa trees. Like most slavery operations, cocoa slavery victims are drawn from nearby poor countries with false advertising promising a good job and enough income to send money home. Ivory Coast slave owners draw their victims from the impoverished countries of Mali and Birkina Faso. The slaves are boys who, like all slaves, are immediately “broken”–broken physically and mentally—to make them docile. Boys who are rebellious or are caught trying to escape tend to disappear.
Cacao beans are a fungible product, meaning one bean is like any other, and large distributors do not separate beans by farm or region. The result is that, for decades, beans bought from Ivory Coast have had about a 70% chance of having been grown and harvested with slave labor. American and European food companies like Hershey and Nestle benefited from the low cost of cacao and did not inquire into the conditions of labor in the places from which the cocoa was sourced.
Then in 2000, two Knight-Ridder reporters, Sumana Chatterjee and Sudarsan Raghavan, broke the story of cacao slavery, sending a brief shock wave through the chocolate industry. Human rights groups became active on behalf of the enslaved children, and enough consumers took notice to give rise to a niche industry in “fair trade” chocolate. For the most part, though, relatively few people learned of cacao slavery, and many of those who did were not moved enough to give up their Snickers and Kisses. At any rate, the sky did not fall, and the bottom did not drop out of the chocolate market. As for government response, Hershey and other cacao buyers were let off the hook in 2001 with a promise to wean themselves off their dependence on slave-sourced cacao in five years. But with perpetual civil war and strife in Ivory Coast, anything resembling thorough and reliable inspection has been an impossibility.
The question recently before the Supreme Court involves a suit brought by Malian plaintiffs under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, a law that permits suits brought by foreign nationals for violations of international law occurring in United States territory. The relevant precedent for the present suit, called Nestle Inc. v. John Doe, is the court’s ruling in the 2013 case Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. In this case, the court dismissed a case brought by 12 Nigerian citizens alleging that the British and Netherlands-based company aided in state-sponsored torture and murder in Nigeria. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that suits brought under the Alien Tort Statute for violations occurring outside the U.S. must “touch and concern” U.S. territory “with sufficient force to displace the presumption.” The 9th Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs in the suit against Nestle deserve the opportunity to update their complaint to fit the requirements of Kiobel.
Should the Malian plaintiffs win their suit against Nestle, it will mark one small victory in the long battle against chocolate slavery in West Africa. But after 16 years of chocolate-company evasions and government foot-dragging, it will only be a small victory. And almost certainly, no food company executive will see the inside of a jail cell for knowingly sourcing slave cacao beans. Justice in the U.S., where corporate executives are concerned, is most merciful. But for now, the U.S. courts seem to have drawn a line in the sand for corporations, just in front of the atrocity of child slavery.