ADM targeted in lawsuit alleging forced labor in cocoa farming

Knight Ridder

By Amy Hoak

DECATUR -- Willy Wonka may be having a fine time at the box office this summer, but real life chocolate makers have a federal lawsuit on their hands.

One of them resides in our back yard.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. is one of three companies named in a federal lawsuit that alleges the industry's involvement in the trafficking, torture and forced labor of children who cultivate and harvest cocoa beans. Nestle and Cargill Inc. also are named in the lawsuit filed earlier this month in Federal District Court in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit was filed by the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of children who were trafficked from Mali into the Ivory Coast and forced to work 12- to 14-hour days, according to the fund's news release. The children allegedly received no pay, little food or sleep and frequent beatings.

It also was filed in the wake of the chocolate industry's missed July 1 federal deadline to develop standards for monitoring and certifying African suppliers, an attempt to keep tabs on the labor practices of cocoa farming operations.

ADM's response: These changes take time.

"The effort to obtain accurate information regarding labor conditions in the West African cocoa sector and to respond appropriately is complicated and difficult and will take the cooperation of many interested parties over an extended period of time," ADM said in a statement posted on its Web site.

"Plans for investigating and addressing labor concerns must be informed by the local culture, beliefs, economics and infrastructure."

In the release, ADM also noted that since 2001, more than 1,000 farmers attended training programs for co-operatives in Cote d'Ivoire. ADM personnel trained them on topics of cocoa quality, child labor, working conditions and HIV/AIDS awareness.

The industry's efforts weren't enough for San Francisco-based Global Exchange, which joined the lawsuit under California's unfair business practice law. The organization alleges no effective steps have been taken to address the child labor problem and, further, that companies have led the public to believe otherwise.

But the response from industry was enough for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York. The two developed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001 to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. When the July

2005 deadline for certification standards was missed, the two expressed disappointment coupled with a willingness to allow industry more time to address the problem.

Under the Protocol, the industry now is expected to roll out a certification system, which includes monitoring, data analysis, reporting and activities to address the worst forms of child labor -- aggressively in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana -- by July 2008. Support for programs to improve conditions in the farming communities is also expected.

The previous deadline might have been unrealistic, said Edward Hertenstein, assistant professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois.

"This is a system that has been developed over hundreds of years, and it's difficult to change it overnight," he said.

Issues involving labor practices in developing parts of the world are gaining attention because the world of work has become so much more globalized over the past years, Hertenstein said. He predicts that the latest chocolate industry lawsuit will end up as most do, with a firm agreement to end the practices or have outside monitors check on the situation.

"They usually don't go to trial and end up in a major judgment against a company," he said.