In a rubber match before the 7th Circuit this week, a panel of three judges decided to dismiss a sticky child labor case against Firestone Natural Rubber Co. The plaintiffs alleged in Boimah Flomo, et al. v Firestone Natural Rubber Co., LLC that Firestone and its officers and affiliates had violated the Alien Tort Statute by knowingly employing children on its Liberian rubber plantation.
According to the plaintiffs, Firestone violated customary international law by putting 23 children to work on its 118,000-acre plantation. The panel affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss Firestone as a defendant, but disagreed with the district court on whether corporations can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute. The district court had accepted Firestone’s argument that, historically, corporations have not been prosecuted under the statute so, therefore, such recourse did 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,” Judge Richard Posner wrote in his opinion. “That doesn't mean that corporations are exempt from that law."
Firestone held that it does not directly employ children and has a policy in place to fire workers who use their children as helpers. However, that policy was not in place in 2005 when the suit was filed.
Posner noted in his opinion that while Firestone affirmed that while children were not allowed to work on the plantation, that because of the high daily production quotas for workers, it’s often hard for them to reach those goals without help. He also wrote that there is evidence to suggest that employees who fail to meet their quotas are fired. However, he recognized that the Liberian Firestone employees are well-paid by regional standards, and that their average annual income allows them to affordably hire any needed helpers.
In the end, the court found that it couldn’t determine the number of children involved or the potential nature of their work, so it was impossible to determine whether any violations actually occurred.