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The US Supreme Court has ruled that chocolate companies cannot be sued for child slavery on the African farms they buy most of their cocoa from.
Six African men sought compensation from Nestlé USA and Cargill, claiming that they were trafficked from Mali as children and forced to work longs hours while being locked up in shacks at night at cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.
Their lawyers argued that the companies should have been looking into their cocoa suppliers in West Africa. About two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region and child labour is common.
They sued under a 1789 law, the Alien Tort Statute, that ensures that federal courts can hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”.
The law wasn’t utilized much until the 1980s when it was invoked in international human rights cases. The scope of the law has been narrowed since 2004 when the Supreme Court said some cases involving the law could be allowed.
The court has rejected claims in the past when the conduct took place almost only outside the US, and where the defendant was a foreign corporation.
The companies asked the court to throw out the lawsuit in the current case, arguing that the US Supreme Court is the wrong place for the complaint and that the law in question allows such cases against individuals and not companies.
They argued that the lawsuit should instead be filed against the traffickers and farmers involved.
Business groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, said lawsuits like this could dissuade investments in developing countries, adding that 150 similar lawsuits have been filed in the last 25 years, The Washington Post reported.
There is evidence that global chocolate production depends on child labour in the face of decades of promises from the industry to improve.
The US Department of Labor recently funded a report which found that the cocoa industry in West Africa was exploiting 1.6 million child labourers. Most of them were forced to perform dangerous jobs such as using machetes, carrying heavy loads, or using pesticides.