Children working on an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation
Plaintiffs argue that Nestle, ADM and Cargill aided and abetted the cocoa plantations alleged of the child labor abuse.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 11 denied a petition from Nestle, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill asking the Supreme Court to determine the legality of a lawsuit that involves alleged forced child labor practices on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations. The case now will head back to a district court.

Plaintiffs argue the three companies, all defendants in the case, aided and abetted the cocoa plantations alleged of the child labor abuse.

“The Supreme Court’s announcement today is not at all a decision on the merits, and the Supreme Court very well may hear this case at a later date,” Nestle said in a statement. “The announcement simply means that lower courts will have to engage in further proceedings first.  We look forward to those proceedings in the lower courts and believe very strongly that the law and facts are on our side.

“The use of child labor is unacceptable and goes against everything Nestle stands for.  Nestle is committed to following and respecting all international laws and is dedicated to the goal of eradicating child labor from our cocoa supply chain.”

The case’s origins date back about a decade. The plaintiffs are three former child laborers. They said that when they were between the ages of 12 and 14, they were forced to work up to 14 hours per day six days a week on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast. They said they were whipped and beaten. One of the plaintiffs said children who failed in their escape attempts were forced to drink urine.

The plaintiffs claim Nestle, ADM and Cargill were aware of child slavery problems in the Ivory Coast at the time and that the companies offered both financial assistance and technical farming assistance designed to support cocoa agriculture. The defendants also could have used their leverage in the cocoa market to stop or limit the alleged child labor practices, according to the plaintiffs.

A district court originally threw out the lawsuit. Then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a Sept. 4, 2014, filing dismissed the district court’s action and ruled the case could continue. A panel within the appeals court held that prohibition against slavery was universal and could be asserted against Nestle, ADM and Cargill.

After the appeals court ruled on the legality of the lawsuit, Nestle, ADM and Cargill petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the lawsuit.

“We’re disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take the case, but we have strong defenses and will now vigorously defend against the claims in the trial court,” said Jackie Anderson, in media relations for Chicago-based ADM.

Minneapolis-based Cargill said in a statement, “While we are disappointed the Supreme Court did not agree to hear our appeal, we remain optimistic that, as the case now goes back to the district court, we will obtain a favorable decision at that level.”

Corporations and the cocoa industry in 2016 have plans in place that address child labor.

Nestle’s “Cocoa Plan” has three pillars: enabling farmers to run profitable farms, improving social conditions and sourcing good quality, sustainable cocoa for Nestle products. The company’s child labor monitoring and remediation system seeks to expose the extent and causes behind child labor in the cocoa farming industry in the Ivory Coast.

Cargill in 2012 introduced a “Cocoa Promise” program that seeks to improve farmer productivity worldwide, increase income and improve livelihoods through farmer training, community support and farm development.

ADM in 2015 completed the sales of a global cocoa business to Olam International and a global chocolate businesses to Cargill. ADM continues to make grants to support education, hunger relief, sustainable agriculture and other causes, according to its “2014 Corporate Responsibility Report.”