The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments by Cargill Inc. and Nestle requesting an end to a 15-year-old lawsuit that alleges the corporations abetted child slave labor on cocoa farms in West Africa.
By taking up the case, the nation's highest court could further shield U.S. corporations from lawsuits by victims of overseas human rights violations.
The plaintiffs, former child laborers trafficked from Mali to Ivory Coast, and human rights advocates allege Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill and Nestle USA Inc. enabled and profited from their enslavement on cocoa farms. That suit has been working its way up and down federal and district courts since 2005.
Cargill sources and sells cocoa to the world's chocolate industry, much of which is farmed in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The global trade of cocoa relies on a decentralized network of smallholder farmers, some of whom use forced child labor to more cheaply harvest the beans and clear the land.
The plaintiffs' lawyers argue that Cargill and Nestle continued doing business with farmers who were knowingly using child labor. Both Cargill and Nestle say they have taken steps to combat child slave labor and have policies expressly forbidding it.
Tuesday's hearing hinges on the Alien Tort Statute, a federal law established in 1789 in part to deal with cases of piracy. The law sat dormant for nearly 200 years, but in recent decades has resurfaced as a tool of human rights activists seeking redress for victims abroad.
The Supreme Court loosely supported use of the law in 2004, but left many questions of liability unanswered. Beginning in 2013, the justices began scaling back the statute's power, first ruling that people or entities sued under the law must have a real connection to the U.S. Five years later, the Supreme Court held that foreign corporations could not be sued under the Alien Tort Statute.
Cargill and Nestle are asking the court to further curtail use of the Alien Tort Statute by ruling U.S. corporations cannot be liable for overseas human rights abuses.
"They want corporations to have all the rights of individuals but no responsibilities," said Terrence Collingsworth, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, in an e-mail.
Both Cargill and Nestle issued statements expressing hope the Supreme Court would end this long-running lawsuit.
"We continue to actively combat any such practices in our supply chains and to address the root causes of child labor, including poverty and lack of education access," Cargill said. "We are proactively working to monitor, identify and remediate any instances of child labor through our Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System."(c)2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC