On Thursday, the U.S Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favour of Cargill and Nestle over allegations of child slavery in their operations in Ivory Coast.
The court threw out a suit accusing both companies of the violations of human rights in their operations on farms in the largest cocoa-producing nation in the world.
The suit was brought on behalf of former child slaves from Mali (John Doe et.al) who worked on a cocoa farm before 2005. The US Supreme Court threw out the suit citing that the acts didn’t happen on American soil, but stayed mum on the right to file lawsuits against American companies for violations committed abroad.
In its ruling, the court said the case cannot be brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-U.S. citizens seek damages in American courts in certain occurrences, because the plaintiffs were unable to establish that the incidents happened in the United States, although it involved companies with links to the country.
Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that “nearly all the conduct that they say aided and abetted forced labor – providing training, fertilizer tools, and cash to overseas farms – occurred in Ivory Coast,”
While both Cargill and Nestle denied ever employing child slaves for their farm operations in Ivory Coast, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Paul Hoffman said justice has been delayed but he will refile the lawsuit and provide stronger evidences to back his allegation of the involvement of the United States.
Hoffman said “… It is significant that the court’s ruling rejected the most extreme arguments for limiting human rights cases,”
Under the Alien Tort Statute, United States companies can be sued for conducts outside the shores of the country. The lawsuit against Nestle and Cargill accuses both companies of turning a blind eye on the use of child slaves in Ivory Coast which was to their benefit, as they got cocoa from the country for their American subsidiaries.
Nestle is a Swiss company and the world’s biggest food producer with a subsidiary in the United States while Cargill is one of America’s biggest privately owned agricultural companies.
A federal district court in Los Angeles had previously thrown out the lawsuit twice, with the most recent happening in 2017. The court found that the claims were barred by recent Supreme Court decisions that made it almost impossible for plaintiffs to sue corporations in U.S. courts for alleged violations overseas.
San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 gave the claims a life as it cited the allegations that the companies provided “personal spending money” to Ivorian farmers to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa.
The circuit said it discovered that the price of cocoa gotten by Nestle and Cargill was low as child slaves from Mali were employed by the farmers to work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.
Africa’s Failure With The Alien Tort Statute
Various Nigerian communities have filed lawsuits against the operations of foreign companies on Nigerian soils, with the most popular being the oil-rich communities in Southern Nigeria.
Confident that the Alien Tort Statute will help in advancing their cause to get a judgement for the depletion of their natural habitats and the endangering of locals’ health, they approach U.S courts and after long-drawn debates, it ends in rulings that throw out their suits because the ATS, although strongly recognises international laws, does not apply outside the United States.
In different rulings in 2013 and 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled that there’s a limit to the ability of plaintiffs to sue corporations in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute for overseas human rights violations. The court said in both rulings that there needed to be a strong link between the alleged conduct and actions that happened within the shores of the US.
Why African Governments Must Protect Their Own
In December 2020, the Ivorian and Ghanaian governments suspended American chocolate company, Hershey’s sustainability schemes, citing the company’s strategy to underpay cocoa farmers in the country.
Many foreign corporations seek cheap labour in Africa, where they either employ the use of child slaves or pay workers ridiculously low salaries. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are more than 72million child labourers in Africa and about half of them are into hazardous work which leaves them at the mercy of death or agelong medical challenges.
African governments, who often seek foreign direct investments do not protect their citizens enough and often leave them at the mercy of foreign corporations who notice the corruption-ridden cracks and treat their workers in ways that violate human rights.
Many Nigerian factory workers in foreign-owned corporations complain of the treatment meted out on them by their foreign bosses, who treat them as labourers, ignore their health risks and pay them low salaries. When they feel trampled upon, they file lawsuits. Some of these cases, when it involves high stakes, are taken outside courts on the continent as the judiciary of most countries are slow, lopsided or don’t have laws that protect their citizens against labour.
Victims seek foreign interventions but mostly end up with disappointing rulings. This leaves African governments with no other choice but to set up policies and practices that will openly benefit the local populace and that will see them being solutions to problems they caused.
Like other cases before now, this situation underlines the need and importance of African governments in securing the lives of their citizens, else, there will be many more dismissals in foreign courts.