Archive for the ‘Corporations & Human Rights’ Category

A “Poster Child for Corporate Malfeasance”

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

One of the cardinal criticisms of large corporations is that they put profits before people. That tendency has been on full display in the recent behavior of transnational mining giant Rio Tinto, which has shown little regard for the well-being not only of its unionized workers but also of a group of executives who found themselves on trial for their lives in China.

The China story began last July, when four company executives — including Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian citizen — were arrested and initially charged with bribery and stealing state secrets, the latter offense carrying a potential death penalty. The charges, which most Western observers saw as trumped up, were made during a time of increasing tension between Rio and the Chinese government, one of the company’s largest customers, especially for iron ore.

Earlier in the year, debt-ridden Rio had announced plans to sell an 18 percent stake in itself to Chinalco, the state-backed Chinese aluminum company, for about $20 billion. Faced with strong shareholder and political opposition, Rio abandoned the deal in June 2009. The arrests may have been retaliation by the Chinese for being denied easier access to Australia’s natural riches.

Although Rio claimed to be standing by its employees, the case did not curb the company’s appetite for doing business with the deep-pocketed Chinese. Rio continued to negotiate with Beijing on large-scale iron ore sales. It seems never to have occurred to the company to terminate those talks until its people were freed. In fact, only weeks after the arrests, Rio’s chief executive Tom Albanese was, as Canada’s Globe and Mail put it on August 21, “trying to repair his company’s troubled relationship with China.”

Before long, Rio was negotiating with Chinalco about participating in a copper and gold mining project in Mongolia. One thing apparently led to another. In March 2010 — after its still-imprisoned employees had been officially indicted and were about to go on trial — Rio announced that it and Chinalco would jointly develop an iron ore project in the West African country of Guinea.

When that trial began a couple of weeks later, the Rio managers admitted guilt, but not to the more serious charge of stealing trade secrets. Instead, they said they had engaged in bribery — but as recipients rather than payers. While the four defendants may have been guilty of some impropriety, it is likely that the admissions were a calculated move to gain a lighter sentence in a proceeding whose outcome was predetermined. And that was the case in large part because their employer decided that its business dealings were more important than demanding justice for its employees.

Rio is no more interested in justice when it comes to its operations outside China. It has been accused of human rights violations in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And it has a track record of exploiting mineworkers in poor countries such as Namibia and South Africa while busting unions in places such as Australia. Recently, Rio showed its anti-union colors again in the United States.

On January 31 its U.S. Borax subsidiary locked out more than 500 workers at its borate mine in Kern County, California. The workers, members of Local 30 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union had the audacity of voting against company demands for extensive contract concessions. The company wasted no time busing in replacement workers.

In a press release blaming the union for the lockout, U.S. Borax complained that ILWU members earned much more than workers at the company’s main competitor Eti Maden. The release conveniently fails to mention that Eti Maden’s operations are in Turkey.

Also missing from the company’s statement is the fact that the biggest driver of demand for boron – a material used in products ranging from glass wool to LCD screens – is the Chinese market. If U.S. Borax busts the ILWU in a way that keeps down boron prices, then the ultimate beneficiary may be Rio Tinto’s friends in China.

It is no surprise that mining industry critic Danny Kennedy once wrote that Rio Tinto “could be a poster child for corporate malfeasance.”

Shell’s Self-Serving “Humanitarian” Gesture

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

whaleOne of the advantages for a corporation in resolving a sensitive lawsuit out of court is that it can proclaim innocence and insist it is settling for other reasons. Royal Dutch Shell has done just that in a case brought in connection with the 1995 execution of author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists who campaigned against the oil company’s operations in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria.

Shell actually was even more brazenly self-serving than the typical company that says it is settling in order to put the case behind it. The Anglo-Dutch transnational insisted that its willingness to pay the plaintiffs US$15.5 million – $5 million of which will go into a trust fund for the Ogoni people – was a “humanitarian gesture.” It was unusual for Shell to allow the amount of the settlement to be disclosed, but it was apparently worth it to draw attention away from the lawsuit’s charges that the company collaborated with the repressive military regime that ruled Nigeria in the 1990s and that put Saro-Wiwa and the others to death after a sham trial. The suit  – brought in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victim Protection Act and racketeering statutes – also accused Shell of being complicit in crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest, wrongful death, assault and battery, and infliction of emotional distress.

It is understandable why the plaintiffs and their lawyers – led by the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International – would feel a need to settle a case that had dragged on for 13 years and provide some financial assistance to the Ogoni community. Yet it is frustrating to see Shell trying to turn an outrage into an opportunity to burnish its image, even though other Ogoni claims are still pending.

The frustration is compounded by the fact that Shell continues to engage in dubious behavior in other parts of its global operations. For example, the company has a problematic relationship with another undemocratic government as part of its deep involvement in a massive oil and gas project in the Russian Far East. That offshore project, known as Sakhalin II, has been the subject of a great deal of controversy because it threatens the survival of one of the world’s most endangered species of whales – Western Pacific Grays (photo).

Groups such as Pacific Environment, collaborating with Russian activists who formed Sakhalin Environment Watch, have pressured Shell and its partners to adopt stronger environmental protections or abandon the project. Shell’s largest partner is Gazprom, a publicly traded gas monopoly that is controlled by the Russian government, which has used the company to advance Russian foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Eastern Europe by cutting off gas supplies at various times. Shell has acknowledged that it is interested in developing a new Sakhalin III project in collaboration with Gazprom.

Last year, there were reports that Shell had sought to influence the outcome of a purportedly independent environmental audit of Sakhalin II. Previously, Shell gained notoriety for overstating its proven petroleum reserves by 20 percent. The company ended up paying about $150 million to U.S. and British authorities to settle the charges. It did not try to depict that payment as a humanitarian gesture, but it is possible that one day Shell may have to put a positive spin on millions paid to settle claims stemming from the harms caused in Sakhalin.

Note: If you want to keep track of the far-flung operations of U.S.-based transnationals, check out a new tool called Croctail, which provides an easy way to search the names of domestic and foreign subsidiaries that publicly traded companies report in their 10-K filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Croctail is an extension of the Crocodyl wiki of critical corporate profiles sponsored by CorpWatch and other groups (full disclosure: I am a contributor and advisor to Crocodyl).

Giant Mining Firm’s Social Responsibility Claims: Rhetoric or Reality?

Friday, August 1st, 2008

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious , even non-Alaskans may want to pay attention to the issue.

The Pebble mine project has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a background report on the company, which has just been released and is available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.

Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.

The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report find a troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of workplace accidents and fatalities.

The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa, where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum operations.

High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the issue late last year.

Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality.  Salmon eaters beware.

An Encyclopedia of Corporate Abuses

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

If today’s ubiquitous feel-good corporate advertisements are to be believed, big business wants nothing more than to improve the lives of all the world’s peoples. A very different perspective appears in a 68-page report recently submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The study—prepared by the Corporate Accountability Working Group of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) with the assistance of 40 non-government organizations from around the world—describes more than 150 cases in which “business enterprises have had significant impacts upon the enjoyment of all types of human rights.” The report ends with a series of recommendations for more effective United Nations action on these problems.

Here are the areas covered by the report with a sample of the cases cited in each:

LABOR RIGHTS – Allegations of child labor at Bridgestone rubber plantations in Liberia. Allegations of the use of forced labor by Brazil’s Amaggi Group in clearing fields for soybean production. Charges that companies such as Wal-Mart and Toyota violated trade union rights of workers. Reports that workers in Indonesian sneaker factories supplying firms such as Nike “received minimal compensation while working in humiliating conditions and living in extreme poverty” (p.7). Various cases of unsafe working conditions, gender discrimination and race discrimination.

ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS – Reports of high rates of infant mortality, birth defects, childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer in areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon where Texaco (now Chevron) operated between 1964 and 1992. Charges that a mine owned by Placer Dome in the Philippines “caused severe pollution of the sea, bay and rivers, slowly poisoning people and their food source” (p.11). Reports that AngloGold Ashanti contaminated water supplies used by people living near its mining operations in Ghana.

RIGHT TO LIBERTY & SECURITY OF PERSONS – Reports that private security contractors such as Blackwater have killed and wounded innocent civilians in Iraq. Cases in which companies such as Occidental Petroleum allegedly provided logistical support for the Colombian Air Force in an attack on a local village. Numerous cases in which companies supported abusive governments.

RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES – Allegations that the rights of the Shuar people in Ecuador were violated when Arco Oriente, and later Burlington Resources, “disregarded the objections of the community’s elected leadership to the company’s petroleum exploration activities” (p.18).

RIGHT TO HOUSING – “The homes of the Grand Bassa community in Liberia were demolished, according to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), its farms and crops destroyed, ancestral burial plots and secret shrines desecrated in order to provide for the operations of Liberia Agriculture Company” (p.21).

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND RIGHT TO INFORMATION – Charges that Western internet companies such as Yahoo assisted Chinese authorities in investigating dissidents. Allegations that Electricité de France “failed to provide complete assessment studies on potentially serious impacts from the construction of the Nam Theun Dam” in Laos (p.26).

RIGHT TO AN EFFECTIVE REMEDY – Numerous cases in which victims of corporate abuses were unable to obtain remedy in their national courts. Charges in Brazil that “Shell had not undertaken activities ordered by a judge at the federal court…to stop dumping chemical waste, clean up contaminated areas, decontaminate drinking water sources and take steps to protect workers’ health” (p.31).

Given the multitude of cases cited by the Working Group report, the amount of detail provided on each is quite limited (though there are ample endnotes). Nonetheless, the document serves as a veritable encyclopedia of the many ways in which corporate activities around the world—especially in poorer countries—can undermine the broad economic, social and civil rights of various populations. This is not a report about which companies will issue press releases to highlight their inclusion.

Note: An excellent resource for tracking abuses of the sort mentioned in this report is the website of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.