former child slaves from West Africa who sued two giant U.S. food companies for what they described as deplorable and illegal working conditions in the global chocolate industry.
The 15-year-old lawsuit was filed by six citizens of Mali in West Africa who said they were trafficked to cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast to work as child slaves. Virginia-based Nestle USA and Minnesota-based Cargill Inc., they claimed in their suit, perpetuated that slave trade with their business decisions in order to keep cocoa prices low.
But Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said that the plaintiffs could not sue under the Alien Tort Act because the actions at issue took place in Ivory Coast, not in the United States.
West African nations produce about 70% of the world’s cocoa, much of which is exported to the United States. An estimated 2.1 million children work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, according to a 2018 Department of Labor report.
At issue is what circumstances allow a foreigner to sue a U.S. company for violations of international law under the Alien Tort Statute, one of the oldest federal laws still on the books. The companies, while decrying the child slave trade, said that the decisions that allowed it to proliferate were made by others – and in Africa, not the United States.
That position seemed to win support from several justices – both conservatives and liberals – during arguments last year. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said the former slaves appeared to fault Nestle because they were “doing business with these people,” not running the farms. Such a standard, he said, could have “very significant effects.”
“You don’t even allege that they actually knew about forced child labor,” Associate Justice Samuel Alito said of Nestle during the December arguments. “After 15 years, is it too much to ask that you allege specifically that the…defendants who are before us here specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or farm cooperatives?”
Although several of the justices were skeptical about the specific allegations in the case, they also questioned the idea that U.S. corporations couldn’t be sued by foreigners under the statute. In 2018, in a case involving a Jordanian bank with a branch in New York, a split court found that foreign corporations could not be sued under the law.