By Claire Kelloway
Food and Power
Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the world’s largest cocoa corporations are liable for child slavery in their supply chains. For 15 years, six citizens of Mali who were trafficked as children to work on cocoa farms have sought legal damages from Cargill and Nestle USA under a 240-year-old anti-piracy law.
The plaintiffs’ attorney told the court that the corporations “maintain a system of child slavery and forced labor in their Ivory Coast supply chain as a matter of corporate policy to gain a competitive advantage in the U.S. market.” Cargill and Nestle deny this charge, saying that they work to avoid child slavery in their supply chains, not aid and abet it. Those who directly perpetrate forced child labor – farmers and human traffickers, in other words – should be held liable, the defendants argue.
The case raises bigger questions about corporate power and accountability in global supply chains. While large corporations do not direct farmers to use child labor, the low prices they offer for cocoa keep farmers in poverty and leave them with few desperate avenues for survival. Large chocolate processors and manufacturers have the wealth and ability to pay farmers more and better monitor their supply chains, but they make more money by not doing so. Instead, the poorest and least powerful players – the farmers – bear most the risks and responsibilities for improving farming practices.