Cargill appeals ruling on lawsuit alleging child slavery on cocoa farms

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The Star Tribune reports Cargill is appealing a judicial panel's ruling in a lawsuit that claims the Twin Cities-based agribusiness bears some responsibility for the use of child slave labor at cocoa farms in Africa.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that three men who say they were kidnapped as children and forced into labor at an Ivory Coast farm can proceed with their lawsuit.

The suit against Cargill, Nestle, and Archer Daniels Midland seeks to hold those corporations liable for conditions on the farms from which they purchased cocoa.

The American Bar Association Journal reports the plaintiffs say they were kidnapped in Mali and brought to Ivory Coast. They say they were forced to work 14-hour days, were beaten and whipped, and were fed only scraps of food.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center recaps the lawsuit's journey through the courts so far. It was filed in 2005 and dismissed by a lower court in 2010. The appeals panel last month overruled the lower court and said the plaintiffs could refile their claim. Now Cargill tells the Star Tribune it's asked the full appeals court to reconsider the case.

"Aiding and abetting enslavement"

Human rights activists are following the lawsuit's progress and generally cheered the September ruling. In a blog post, an official with Oxfam America argued that the food corporations are enabling enslavement. Irit Tamir writes:

"For too long now, many industries have profited from inhuman working conditions, seeing labor as yet another line item that can be manipulated in terms of cost. Driving working conditions and wages to the lowest common denominator keeps the costs of commodities as low as possible."

Cargill counters by emphasizing to the Star Tribune that the company does not own or operate any cocoa farms. The newspaper reports an email from Cargill says it is working to protect children from forced labor "...and we are committed to working toward a cocoa supply chain where no children are subject to these conditions.”

The company points to the "Cargill Cocoa Promise," an initiative it says has funneled millions of dollars into training farmers in sustainable methods, offering higher prices to those who prohibit forced labor and agree to inspections.

Legal criteria for liability murky

Legal scholars are also monitoring the case, watching to see if it sheds light on if and when U.S. corporations can be held liable for labor conditions on overseas farms.

Oxfam's Tamir says the appeals panel's ruling last month suggests knowing about labor abuses and deciding to put profits ahead of human rights is sufficient to get a company sued.

But in April of 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit alleging human rights violations by oil companies in Nigeria. The ABA Journal says the justices ruled the claims in that case did not "touch and concern the territory of the United States ... with sufficient force" to need a remedy under the Alien Tort Statute.

The journal Lawfare notes that since that ruling, courts have been divided about the meaning of the "touch and concern" standard.

The appeals panel wrote last month it would not “attempt to apply the amorphous touch and concern test on the record currently before us.”

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