U.S. companies sued in Calif. over child labor claims


By Gina Keating

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A human rights group has sued three U.S. companies in federal court in Los Angeles to force them to step up efforts to end child labor on African farms that supply cocoa beans used to make chocolate products.

The International Labor Right Fund filed suit on behalf of former child laborers against Nestle (NESN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) , Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and privately held Cargill Inc. on Thursday claiming the companies are involved in trafficking, torture and forced labor of Mali children who were enslaved to work on Ivory Coast farms.

The lawsuit comes soon after U.S. and European chocolate and cocoa industry missed a July 1 deadline imposed by federal law for adopting protocols to eliminate child labor from the West African cocoa supply chain.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the protocol's authors, said earlier this month he was disappointed that the industry had been unable to certify that its chocolate products were not made with child labor but was satisfied it was "committed to moving forward."

In a statement, the International Labor Rights Fund blasted the industry for dragging its feet and refusing "to exchange a small portion of its massive profits to ensure sufficient return for farmers and workers."

Representatives for Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Illinois, one of world's largest agricultural processing companies, and Cargill, an agricultural products and services provider, had no comment on the lawsuit.

A Nestle spokeswoman also would not comment on the lawsuit, but said the company was working with the International Cocoa Initiative foundation created by the Harkin-Engel protocol.

"Obviously we strongly believe it is important to make sure that cocoa is grown responsibly without abusive labor practices," Nestle spokeswoman Barb Skoog said.

The lawsuit claims the Mali children were beaten and forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day with no pay and little food or sleep.

The three main plaintiffs said they were ages 12 to 14 when were taken from their homes, but the lawsuit covers "thousands" of children who were allegedly enslaved from 1996 until the present to work in the Ivory Coast region.

The claims were brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which has recently been used by human rights groups to sue multinational corporations for violations of international law in countries outside the United States.

Similar lawsuits were brought against Unocal Corp (UCL.N: Quote, Profile, Research) by villagers who claimed they were enslaved by Myanmar's military government to work on a pipeline for Unocal and other entities.

Settlements in those cases were finalized earlier this year.