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Chocolate at the Supreme Court

While there is a tremendous amount of polarity in the US today, there are a few things that people can generally agree on. One of them is that most of us have a soft spot for chocolate. But many of us don’t know much about where chocolate comes from or how it’s made. Some of the biggest names in chocolate would like to keep it that way in order to shield consumers from knowing about the forced labor in the industry that helps make chocolate such a money-maker for these companies. But there are some individuals who are doing their best to keep us informed about this underbelly of the chocolate industry, and to make it right. 

Last month, the Supreme Court of the US heard a case against Nestle’s US subsidiary and Cargill Inc.* brought on behalf of 15 former child slaves from Mali. Lawyers for the 15 argued that Nestle and Cargill knew that child slavery was being used on some of the cocoa farms who supply the companies, and that they essentially looked the other way in order to keep the price of the cocoa low. More specifically, Nestle and Cargill are being sued for aiding and abetting overseas human rights violations using the Alien Tort Statute, a law created in 1789 that allows, in some cases, for non-US citizens to seek damages for violations done by US companies overseas. The Supreme Court will reach a decision most likely in May or June as to whether the case against these giant corporations can move forward. 

What I know about this case is based on a debriefing given by members of the plaintiffs’ legal team and reading about the case. 

Fifteen Years Later

This case was first brought to court in 2005. At that time, the plaintiffs were children. They had been kidnapped from their home country of Mali and told they were being taken somewhere where they would be given a good job. Instead, they were taken to Cote D’Ivoire where they were forced to work or starve; they didn’t speak the language, they were not paid; they were guarded at night while they slept; when one boy tried to escape, the bottoms of his feet were slashed with a machete and rubbed with chiles; all of the children had scars on their backs from whippings; it goes on and on. Nestle and Cargill paid the cacao farm owners to keep the price of their goods low; the plaintiffs argued that this was essentially a kickback to encourage the farmers to continue using slave labor. Nestle and Cargill have managed to drag out this case for fifteen years and counting using legal means, such that the children are now adults. More than fifteen years later, they are still waiting just for the right to have their case heard. 

Bad Optics

The companies argue that of course they are against child slavery, but that the Alien Tort Statute should not apply to companies; the law is too old and vague; it is impossible for them to know everything that happens on the farms they do business with. I am completely unqualified to speak with any authority to most of what Nestle and Cargill claim, but I find it hard to believe that such large companies are unable to trace their cocoa. It makes no sense at all when they have every resource they need to set up a record keeping system; it’s just not that hard. The Supreme Court is being asked to give the corporations immunity. But if the Court gives the companies immunity, it seems like an endorsement of child slavery. And if the case is allowed to proceed, it looks very bad for Nestle and Cargill. It’s bad optics all the way around.

The Role of Consumers

Supreme Court Justices and the companies themselves do not want to go on record endorsing child slavery or forced labor of any kind for obvious reasons—and the companies have a vested interest in this case never getting to court for the same reasons. That’s why it’s important to keep talking about it, to spread awareness of this issue and attach names and faces to the charges.  We as consumers have tremendous power, and can use that power to push all Big Chocolate companies away from age-old practices that violate basic human rights. As we wait for the Supreme Court’s decision, we can make sure to buy chocolate that we are sure does not use slave labor. Do your research. Someone else’s life may depend on it. 

*Cargill is one of the largest privately owned businesses in the US whose brands include Purina, Diamond Salt, Truvia, and chocolate brands including Peter’s and Wilbur.  




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