Written by 16 h 22 min Labor rights and Modern slavery, Strategic litigation

COMILOG Faces a Group of Former Employees

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Company targeted: Comilog

 

An overview of the facts and proceedings… 

The COMILOG company was incorporated in 1953 in order to exploit a deposit of manganese located near the town of Moanda in Gabon. Due to the distance between the mine and the Gabonese coast, a cable car linking the town of Moanda with the city of Mbinda located in the Congo was built, as well as a railway to transport the ore through the port of Pointe Noire.

In 1991, in Mvoungouti, near Pointe Noire, a train pulled by a COMILOG locomotive was involved in an accident killing one hundred persons and wounding nearly three hundred. As a result of this dramatic accident, the management of COMILOG decided, on injunction of the Gabonese authorities, to suspend the transport of manganese along the Congolese railway and dismissed all of the workers in the Congo without notice.

The Company did not pay the slightest compensation to the dismissed workers and even refused to give them an end-of-work certificate, which is an essential document to receive a retirement pension and to justify the many years of work performed.

 

The Litigation…

Comilog was a French company during the colonial period and would remain so thanks to an agreement signed in 1959 between France, Gabon, and Congo Republic that allowed the company to preserve its French nationality during independence.  Sherpa calls on the judge to accept jurisdiction over these dismissals based on the denial of justice and Article 15 of the Civil Code, which allows for any French defendant to be brought before the French courts.

On June 20, 2013, the Paris Court of Appeals hands down a decision finding that the French courts have jurisdiction over the cases filed against Comilog France and Comilog International, and thus accepts Sherpa’s position regarding the denial of justice. This decision opens the way for victims of French companies abroad who would have no other means of seeking justice other than through the French courts.

Comilog - © D.R.

Comilog – © D.R.

The French courts have jurisdiction over this dispute.

The court refers the parties to a new hearing set for June 5, 2014, where disclosure materials and the merits of the case will be considered.

Sherpa’s work on this case and the appeal handed down by the Paris Court of Appeals enable an advance in two areas:

  • On the human level: by allowing 867 people and their families to claim compensation.
  • At the legal level: by no longer allowing economic players to enjoy impunity for their actions and by returning hope to victims of multinational companies regarding access to justice.

The Comilog case is also representative of the liability problem groups of companies have regarding environmental or human rights violations committed for their benefit abroad.  The appellate court’s decision could be a new step towards recognizing that parent companies are legally responsible for the activities of a subsidiary that violates workers’ fundamental rights.

Legal basis … 

The proceedings of the COMILOG case require that the jurisdiction of the French courts be recognized with respect to COMILOG, COMILOG France and COMILOG INTERNATIONAL, on the grounds of article 15 of the civil code and the denial of justice. The latter is based on an abusive breach of labor contracts presented before the French Conseil des prud’hommes (labor court). At the legal level, it is a considerable judicial breakthrough, because after eight years of proceedings, the Court of Appeal finally recognized its competence to judge the case, on the grounds of the denial of justice. It condemns in France a company under Gabonese law for its acts abroad, concerning the employment contracts of Congolese employees. The Court considered that the link between the dispute and France was sufficient due to the French nationality of its current parent company: Eramet.

Nevertheless, the denial of justice is a rare case and particularly delicate to use to obtain access to justice in France for victims. This proves that a general law on the duty of care of parent and subcontracting companies, giving access to justice in France to these victims, is all the more necessary.

 

What Sherpa’s work has enabled … 

 

After a 23-year legal battle, the former workers of COMILOG who had filed a complaint with the Labor Tribunal of Pointe Noire in the Congo in 1992, obtained, on September 10, 2015 before the French courts, the conviction of the Gabonese company to pay compensation following the breach of their employment contracts. These judgments,
which will settle the fate of the 857 workers individually even though they suffered the same prejudice, also demonstrates the need in France to extend the concept of «class action» to cases other than consumer actions and encourages Sherpa to continue advocacy on this subject.

 

Chronology of proceedings… 

November 9, 2007 – 857 former employees of the COMILOG company filed a complaint against COMILOG, COMILOG FRANCE, COMILOG INTERNATIONAL and COMILOG HOLDING with the Labor court of Paris for the abusive breach of labor contracts.

October 8, 2008 – 1st hearing before the Conciliation Board of the Labor court of Paris. However, because of the absence of one of the lawyers of the company, the hearing was postponed to June 22, 2009.

June 22, 2009 – 2nd hearing before the Conciliation Board of the Labor court of Paris.

November 28, 2009 – The Conciliation Board rejected all of the demands on the grounds that it was not within their competence to decide on the difficult question of the nationality of the COMILOG company.

October 13, 2010 – 1st hearing before the Judgement Board of the Labor court of Paris.

January 26, 2011 – Judgment by the Labor court rejecting the request of the Congolese Workers on the grounds of the incompetence of the French lex fori on the dispute.

February 2011 – The Judgment Board having declared itself incompetent without ruling on the merits, the former COMILOG workers challenged the decision, hoping that the Court of Appeal would recognize its competence and rule on the merits.

April 11, 2013 – Appeal hearing before the Court of Appeal of Paris. Léopold Moukouyou, president of the Collective of Former COMILOG Workers was unable to be present due to a late refusal of his visa.

June 20, 2013 – Judgment of the Court of Appeal of Paris, which received the challenge and declared the French courts to be competent to decide on the claims against COMILOG FRANCE and COMILOG INTERNATIONAL.

January 28, 2015 – Judgment of rejection by the Court of Cassation on the irregularity of the
procedure, the litispendence and the jurisdiction.

September 10, 2015 – Judgment of the Court of Appeal of Paris: the Court of Appeal recognized the jurisdiction of the French courts on the grounds of the denial of justice.

During 2015 – appeal of both parties. In wait for the judgment of the Court of Cassation.

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