Friday, December 4, 2020
Did A Child Slave Help Make Your Chocolate Bar and If So, Who Should Be Responsible? The Supreme Court and Nestle v. Doe
If you’re sipping some hot chocolate while reading this post or buying your Hanukah or Christmas candy, chances are you’re consuming a product made with cocoa beans harvested by child slaves in Africa. Almost twenty years ago, the eight largest chocolate companies, a US Senator, a Congressman, the Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, NGOs, and the ILO pledged through the Harkin Engel Protocol to eliminate “the worst forms of” child slavery and forced labor in supply chains. In 2010, after seeing almost no progress, government representatives fom the US, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast released a Framework of Action to support the implementation and to reduce the use of child and forced labor by 70% by 2020. But, the number of child slaves has actually increased.
2020 has come and almost gone and one of the Harkin Engel signatories, Nestle, and another food conglomerate, Cargill, had to defend themselves in front of the Supreme Court this week in a case filed in 2005 by former child slaves. The John Does were allegedly kidnapped in Mali and forced to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, where they worked 12-14 hours a day in 100-degree weather, spoke a different language from the farmers, lived off dirty water and bowls of rice, and were never paid. According to counsel for the Respondents who gave a debrief earlier this week, the children were locked up at night, told to work or starve, whipped, and when one tried to escape, his feet were slashed and then hot chilis were rubbed into his soles. Respondents sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which Congress passed in 1789 to allow foreign citizens to sue in US federal courts for violations of “the law of nations” to avoid international tensions. In two recent cases, the Court has limited the use of the ATS against foreign corporations sued for acts against foreign plaintiffs because of jurisdictional grounds and ruled that foreign corporations were not subject to the ATS. But the Nestle and Cargill case is different. Respondents sued a US company and the US arm of a Swiss company. (Click here for access to the briefs and here to listen to the oral argument.) For an excellent symposium on the issues see here.
Respondents claim that the companies provided money and resources to the farmers in Africa and knew that child slaves harvested their cocoa. The two questions before the Court were:
- May an aiding and abetting claim against a domestic corporation brought under the Alien Tort Statute overcome the extraterritoriality bar where the claim is based on allegations of general corporate activity in the United States and where the Respondents cannot trace the alleged harms, which occurred abroad at the hands of unidentified foreign actors, to that activity?
- Does the judiciary have the authority under the Alien Tort Statute to impose liability on domestic corporations?
To those who obsess about business and human rights and ESG issues like I do, this case has huge potential implications. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written more than half a dozen posts, law review articles, and an amicus brief on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals disclosures, which purport to inform consumers about the use of forced labor and child slaves in the harvesting of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. I’ve been skeptical of those disclosure rules that don’t have real penalties. The Nestle case could change all of that by crafting a cognizable cause of action.
To my surprise, the Justices weren’t completely hostile to the thought of corporate liability under the ATS. Here are some of the more telling questions to the counsel for the companies:
Justice Alito: Mr. Katyal, many of your arguments lead to results that are pretty hard to take. So suppose a U.S. corporation makes a big show of supporting every cause de jure but then surreptitiously hires agents in Africa to kidnap children and keep them in bondage on a plantation so that the corporation can buy cocoa or coffee or some other agricultural product at bargain prices. You would say that the victims who couldn't possibly get any recovery in the courts of the country where they had been held should be thrown out of court in the United States, where this corporation is headquartered and does business?
Justice Breyer: …I don't see why exempt all corporations, including domestic corporations, from this -- the scope of the statute.
Justice Kagan: If you could bring a suit against 10 slaveholders, when those 10 slaveholders form a corporation, why can’t you bring a suit against the corporation?
Justice Kavanaugh: The Alien Tort Statute was once an engine of international human rights protection. Your position, however, would allow suits by aliens only against individuals, as you've said, and only for torts international law recognized that occurred in the United States. And Professor Koh's amicus brief on behalf of former government officials, for example, says that your position would "gut the statute." So why should we do that?
Here are some of the more interesting questions to the government, which supports the companies’ positions against application of the ATS to corporations:
Chief Justice Roberts: We don't have objections from foreign countries in this case. As far as we can tell, they're perfectly comfortable having U.S. citizens, U.S. corporations hailed into their U -- in U.S. courts. What should we make of that, and doesn't that suggest we ought to be a little more -- a little less cautious about finding a cause of action here?
Justice Breyer: …what’s new about suing corporations? When I looked it up once, there were 180 ATS lawsuits against corporations. Most of them lost but on other grounds. So why not sue a domestic corporation? You can't sue the individual because, in my hypothetical, the individuals have all moved to Lithuania. All you have is the corporate assets in the bank and minutes that prove it was a corporate decision. What's new about it? Why is it creating a form of action?
Justice Alito: Won't your arguments about aiding and abetting and extraterritoriality all lead to essentially the same result as holding that a domestic corporation cannot be sued under the ATS? Corporations always act through natural persons, so if a corporation can't aid and abet, there -- there will be only a sliver of activity where they could be responsible under respondeat superior, isn't that true?
Justice Amy Coney Barrett: You say that the focus of the tort should be the primary conduct, so, here, what was happening in Cote d'Ivoire, rather than the aiding and abetting, which you characterize as secondary. But why should that be so? I mean, let's imagine you have a U.S. corporation or even a U.S. individual that is making plans to facilitate the use of child slaves, you know, making phone calls, sending money specifically for that purpose, writing e-mails to that effect.Why isn't that conduct that occurs in the United States something that touches and concerns, you know, or should be the focus of conduct, however you want to state the test?
Finally, here are some of the tough questions posed to counsel for the Respondents:
Justice Thomas: The TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] seems to suggest that Congress does not see the ATS the way you do. Obviously, there, you don't have corporate liability and you don't have aiding and abetting liability. So why shouldn't we take that as an indication that Congress sought limitations on -- on the ATS jurisdiction?
Justice Breyer: Assume that there is corporate liability for domestic corporations. Assume that there is aiding and abetting liability. Now what counts as aiding and abetting for purposes of this statute? When I read through your complaint, it seemed to me that all or virtually all of your complaint amount to doing business with these people.They help pay for the farm. And that's about it.And they knowingly do it. Well, unfortunately, child labor, it's terrible, but it exists throughout the world in many, many places. And if we take this as the norm, particularly when Congress is now working in the area, that will mean throughout the world this is the norm. And I don't know, but I have concern that treating this allegation, the six that you make here, as aiding and abetting falling within that term for purposes of this statute, if other nations do the same, and we do the same, could have very, very significant effects. I'm just saying I'm worried about that.
Justice Alito: So, after 15 years, is it too much to ask that you allege specifically that the -- the defendants involved -- the defendants who are before us here specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or farm cooperatives with which they did business? Is that too much to ask?
To be fair, Nestle and Cargill have worked to remedy these issues. Nestle’s 2019 Shared Values Report tracks its commitments to individuals and families, communities, and the planet to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Among other things, the report highlights Nestle's work to reduce human rights abuses and links to its December 2019 report on child labor and cocoa farms. The company touts its progress but admits it has a long way to go. Cargill has a separate Cocoa Sustainability Progress Report, which describes its 2012 Cargill Cocoa Promise for capacity building and a more transparent supply chain. But is it enough?
In any event, we won’t know what the Court decides until Spring. In the meantime, despite the best efforts of the companies, almost two million children still work in the cocoa harvesting business and most aren’t kidnapped anymore. They need the work. The local governments have taken notice in part due to the terrible publicity from the media. Allegedly, however, Hershey and Mars are trying to avoid the $400 a ton premium that the West African governments are levying to provide more funding for the farmers. The companies deny these allegations. But there’s now a chocolate war. This means your chocolate may get more expensive, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How will this all shake out? There’s a chance that the Court could find for the Respondents. More likely, though advocates will focus on convincing Congress to expand the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to include corporations. Some NGOs are already talking about increasing consumer awareness and spurring boycotts. Perhaps, advocates will put pressure on the Biden administration to ban the import on chocolate harvested with child labor, similar to the ban on some products produced by Uighurs in China.I expect that there will be a lot of lobbying at the state and federal level to deal with the larger issue of whether corporations that have some of the rights of natural persons should also have the responsibilities. Boards and companies should get prepared. In the meantime, do you plan to give up chocolate?