by Elizabeth Becker
WASHINGTON, May 28--An international labor rights group announced today that it planned to sue the United States Customs Service for breaking American trade law and allowing African cocoa picked by indentured child labor to be imported into this country.
Terry Collingsworth, director of the International Labor Rights Fund, said his group had grown impatient with the Customs Service for failing to investigate accusations that cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast used slave or indentured child labor.
He said those cocoa beans were purchased by large international food firms like Nestle, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Company.
"We are confident that if the Customs Service began an investigation the industry would take notice and find out whether indentured child labor was used to pick the cocoa beans," Mr. Collingsworth said.
Kevin Bell, spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, said, "We reject hte charges against us and are in the process of writing a letter to the group explaining what we are doing."
Ivory Coast is one of the major producers of cocoa in the world.
In a letter to the group, Richard Meade of Nestle USA said his company was working with members of Congress and organizaed labor. Together, he said, they had developed a plan "to better identify and address instances of abusive child labor in cocoa growing."
The labor group is only the latest organization to charge that plantation owners in Ivory Coast buy children from neighboring countries like Mali to work in cocoa fields.
According to a 1998 report by Unicef's Ivory Coast office, children from Mali and Burkina Faso were brought by traffickers to work in the plantations. But the authors of the report wrote that it was impossible to estimate how many children were involved.
The State Department's 2002 report on human rights in Ivory Coast stated that "some forced child labor and trafficking in children and women also persisted."
Some of the children are said to be victims of smugglers' rings. Others are sent by their parents to the fields to earn money and learn a trade but end up forfeiting their earnings to middlemen. The plantation workers are paid 50 cents a day.
Marx-Vilaire Aristide, an investigator for the labor group, said that after visiting more than two dozen cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast he found some evidence of child labor but was chased off the premises once he was seen photographing the children.
Mr. Aristide, a Haitian who speaks French, said he interviewed several children from Mali who escaped from the plantations. He said they complained that they were badly treated, given little food and no money and in desperation fled the country to return to their homes.
As a result of the investigations, the labor rights group said today that it was the responsibility of customs officials to investigate which plantations continue the practice of indentured or slave child labor and then ban all products made from the cocoa beans.
"Once the agency has a reason to believe that a product is made by forced child labor," Mr. Collingsworth said, "the burden is on the importer to show that they are not."
But Mr. Bell of the Customs Service said the suit was unnecessary. "We already enforce the law," he said.