Companies using people working against their will through the threat or use of violence may face liability. The use of such labour by a joint venture partner or state security forces that are associated with a corporate investment or facility may also pose a liability risk.
Forced labour may be a violation of ILO Conventions 29 and 105 as well as customary international humanitarian and criminal law, as defined in the Geneva Conventions, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
There has been a significant expansion and strengthening of international law with respect to forced labour, child labour and enslavement. Older customary and conventional law prohibitions against enslavement and slavery, some of which may create prosecutable criminal offences subject to universal jurisdiction. Acts amounting to forced labour may also be actionable under domestic tort and criminal laws.
Case 2.1 John Doe I et al v. Unocal Corp
An American oil company (Unocal) was sued in the United States and settled out of court for the alleged use of forced labour by the Burmese government (which was its joint venture partner) prior to their construction of an oil pipeline.
Plaintiffs were a group of Burmese citizens who were allegedly forced to perform labor for the benefit of the Yadana Gas Pipeline Project, in which Unocal was a joint venture partner with the military government. Several of the Doe Plaintiffs also claimed they suffered abuses that included sexual assaults by military officials hired to provide “security” to the pipeline project, as well as forcible dislocation from their homes, and murder.
In their 1996 lawsuit, plaintiffs alleged the deaths of family members, assaults, rapes, forced labor, and the loss of their homes and property at the hands of Burmese military leadership, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). On several occasions SLORC soldiers allegedly entered area villages to either force relocation of the residents or to recruit individuals into serving as “porters” for the performance of various menial tasks. Soldiers allegedly arrested, beat or executed individuals who were unwilling or physically unable to perform the assigned tasks, as well as attacking family members of those targeted for forced labor.
The Plaintiffs alleged that the conduct of the SLORC officials and their association with the defendants’ business activities amounted to the following violations of international and national law:
Violation of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act
Forced Labor (see below for reference to international law)
Crimes Against Humanity: killing, rape and other torture, beatings, and other assaults.
Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment
Torts: Wrongful death, battery, false imprisonment, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence per se, negligent hiring, negligent supervision.
Violation of California Business & Professions Code § 17200
In December 2004, in a joint statement, the two sides said that Unocal would pay the fifteen plaintiffs an unspecified amount of money and fund programs to improve living conditions for people affected by the pipeline, as well as those “who may have suffered hardships”.
Previously, in August 2000, Judge Ronald S. Lew granted Unocal’s motion for summary judgment dismissing all claims against the company. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case on September 18, 2002, finding that plaintiffs had proffered evidence that Unocal and its co-venturers knowingly participated in using forced labor and committing other human rights violations by providing financial and material support to the military security forces, and that these acts were sufficient to constitute “aiding and abetting” under both international and domestic law. On February 12, 2003, the Ninth Circuit vacated the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, and granted an en banc review. The case was ultimately settled out of court in 2004.
Sources for this summary
John Doe I et al v. Unocal Corp et al 6/7/02 BC 237 980 (county of LA Sup Ct.);John Doe I et al v. Unocal Corp DC Case No. 00-56603; 00-56628 (9th Cir. 2002)
For plaintiffs’ full factual allegations see Complaint available at
Business and Human Rights Resource Centre
Earthrights FAQ and links to case documents
Business and International Crimes
In 2006, Unocal was bought by Chevron. Chevron issued a statement in 2007 on Burma/Myanmar.
Other Relevant Cases
Executives of German companies that had used forced labour during World War II were convicted and imprisoned.
U.S. v. Krauch, et. al, (The I.G. Farben Case)
VIII Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, iii-iv (1952)
In 1947, twenty-three employees of I.G. Farben were indicted for plunder, slavery, and complicity in aggression and mass murder. I.G. Farben was a major German chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturer that both took control of factories in Nazi occupied territories and employed concentration camp labor in its factories. Twelve of those indicted were convicted either for plunder or slave labor. One was convicted on both charges. This case marked the first time that a court attempted to impose liability on a group of persons collectively in charge of a company.
U.S. v. Alfried Krupp
IX Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal at 1327 (1949)
The Krupp case involved the prosecution of twelve defendants for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity with respect to plunder and spoliation of civilian property and factories in occupied territories, and also in the deportation of and use of prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates as forced laborers in various Krupp factories in Germany. Eleven of the twelve defendants were convicted and sentenced by the United States Military Tribunal.
Sources of Law at the time these cases were decided were as follows:
Control Council Law No. 10 (Dec. 20, 1945), reprinted in 1 Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, at xvi (photo. reprint 1998) (1949);
Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis, and Charter of the International Military Tribunal. London, 8 August 1945, Part II, Art. 6(c).
As a result of subsequent claims related to these and other forced labour cases, the financial repercussions from the WWII era cases continued to be felt until very recently. Between 2000 and June 2007, the German government and companies, many of which had profited from forced labour, paid approximately €5 billion compensation for forced labour claims from the Second World War era.
For a more in-depth summary of law and precedent from WWII, definitions, a bibliography and a list of criminal and compensation cases covering both cases emerging from Germany and Japan see Business and International Crimes For scholarly discussion, see e.g., Michael J. Bayzler, “Nuremberg in America: Litigating the Holocaust” 34 University of Richmond Law Review 1 (2000).