Firestone Dodges Claims of Liberian Child Labor
(CN) - There is not enough evidence to support allegations that Firestone Natural Rubber illegally used child labor at one of its Liberia plantations, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Filed on behalf of 23 Liberian children, the suit accused Firestone of violating the Alien Tort Statute by knowingly employing children on an 118,000-acre plantation.
The Alien Tort Statute confers federal jurisdiction for "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." Courts look for "customary international law" infractions to determine if a violation has occurred.
Judge Richard Posner spent the majority of the 24-page opinion discussing how the vagueness of the Alien Tort Statute makes application difficult.
Though the three-judge appellate panel ultimately affirmed the decision to dismiss Firestone as a defendant, it disagreed with the U.S. District Court that corporations cannot be held liable under the statute. Firestone had argued that because, historically, corporations have not been prosecuted under the statute, such recourse does not exist.
"It is neither surprising nor significant that corporate liability hasn't figured in prosecutions of war criminals and other violators of customary international law," Posner wrote. 'That doesn't mean that corporations are exempt from that law."
But proving that Firestone had violated customary international law was a bigger challenge, especially given the vagueness of Child Labor Conventions' standards on which plaintiffs relied.
Though Firestone does not employ children directly, it sets high daily production quotas for its employees that are difficult to make without help. Employees make $1,559 a year, a substantial amount in a country where the per-capita GDP is only $218.
To meet their quotas, employees could hiring other Liberians to help. "But alternatively they can dragoon their wives or children into helping them, at no monetary cost; and this happens, though how frequently we don't know," Posner explained.
Firestone claims it now has a policy of firing employees who use their children as helpers, but it did not have such a policy prior to 2005, when the suit was filed./
Because the court cannot ascertain the number of children involved or the nature of the work, however, it cannot determine whether violations occurred.
The court added that the nature of the labor must be evaluated holistically.
"Conceivably, because the fathers of the children on the plantation are well paid by Liberian standards, even the children who help their fathers with the work are, on balance, better off than the average Liberian child, and would be worse off it their fathers, unable to fill their daily quotas, lost their jobs or had to pay adult helpers, thus reducing the family's income," Posner wrote.
"To sum up, although we disagree with the district court's ruling that corporations cannot be held liable for violating the Alien Tort Statute and we reject many of the defendant's arguments, we agree with the judgment," the judge added.