BAT, Imperial Lose Bid to Have Child Labor Case Thrown Out

British American Tobacco Plc and Imperial Brands Plc lost their bid to persuade a judge to throw out claims by a group of Malawian farmers who say they’ve been exploited in the growing of tobacco bought by the firms.

The 7,300 farmers -- almost half of whom are under 18 years old -- claim that the tobacco companies assisted and profited from their work on farms with unlawful and dangerous conditions. Many were trafficked from their family homes to the tobacco farms, which sell leaves to merchants like Alliance One International LLC who sell it on to tobacco firms worldwide, the farmers’ lawyers have argued.

Much of the debate centered on the traceability of the firms’ supply chains and whether the farmers’ lawyers could prove BAT and Imperial Brands bought their tobacco. Leigh Day, the firm representing the farmers, said they had evidence that showed they were likely to have grown tobacco bought by the firms.

In his Friday ruling, Judge Martin Spencer accepted that argument, ruling that the farmers’ lawyers didn’t have to provide that evidence at this stage of the case, overruling the demands from the tobacco firms, and allowing the case to proceed.

“There is a clear pathway to be seen for the claimants’ tobacco leaves to end up in the hands of the defendants and that is sufficient to take the case out of the ‘wholly speculative’ category,” the judge said in his ruling. The farmers may still have to submit a formal application to compel the firms to obtain and publish details of their suppliers.

BAT and Imperial both claim in their company reports to be able to track tobacco products to the farm level to ensure they’re sourcing from farms that offer fair working conditions. But when pushed, neither firm said they could immediately identify all farmers who grew the tobacco they’d purchased -- only that they required their merchants to retain records, and that they’d have to approach them for more information.

“Our clients do not have the names of the contract farmers who have grown tobacco purchased by the Alliance One Group within the last six years, which has in turn been purchased by entities within the Imperial Group,” lawyers for Imperial said in a June 2020 letter to in a letter to the farmers’ lawyers. Lawyers representing BAT echoed similar arguments in a March 2020 letter.

Leigh Day partner Oliver Holland said Friday’s ruling is evidence of the tobacco manufacturers’ misleading statements.

“Once again we see the information the multinational companies provide in their corporate materials in relation to human rights and environmental issues is misleading and untrue,” Holland said in a statement.

A spokesman for Imperial said it will continue to fight the case, declining to comment further.

BAT “has a long-standing commitment to respect the human rights of our employees, the people we work with and the communities in which we operate, across our supply chains and business operations,” the company said in a statement. It said it will continue to “vigorously defend” itself against the claims.

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