Mubarak’s Foreign Corporate Backers

Pro-Mubarak thugs charged into Tahrir Square on horses and camels in an effort to save the embattled Egyptian dictator. It was not long ago that the regime was being propped up by a different breed of supporter: foreign investors arriving on corporate jets with billions of dollars in capital.

Long overdue attention is being paid to the foreign arms contractors that have equipped the Egyptian military with weapons funded by U.S. aid programs. Also deserving of close scrutiny are the major U.S. and European corporations that have invested heavily in Egypt, thereby shoring up the regime. Here are some of the main culprits.

BP. Formerly known as British Petroleum, BP has a long history in the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular. The company’s website makes no bones about its huge involvement in Egypt during the Mubarak regime: “BP Egypt has been a significant part of the Egyptian oil and gas industry for more than 44 years. During this time, we’ve been responsible for almost half of Egypt’s entire oil production and we are the single largest foreign investor in the country…Over the years we’ve established strong relationships with the Egyptian Government and the Ministry of Petroleum.” In July 2010 BP agreed to sell some of its Egyptian assets to Apache Corporation as part of a divestment effort to raise funds to pay for the cleanup of its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nestlé. Just a week before protests broke out in Cairo, this Swiss food giant announced that it would invest some $170 million to expand its existing factories and distribution centers in Egypt, adding 500 new jobs to its 3,000-person workforce. After the announcement, the country’s Ministry of Investment put out a press release quoting Nestlé’s CEO as saying that the move was based on studies “that had proven Egypt to be a promising market with security, stability and high profitability in the long term.”

Procter & Gamble. In June 2010 P&G laid the cornerstone on a huge new diaper manufacturing plant outside Cairo. The $176 million facility would nearly double the value of P&G’s operations in Egypt, which currently involve the production of products such as detergents, soaps and other personal care products.

Electrolux. The Swedish appliance company announced last October that it would spend about $475 million to buy a controlling interest in Egypt’s Olympic Group, the largest producer of household appliances in the Middle East and North Africa.

Saint-Gobain. In July 2010 the large French construction materials firm opened a $100 million glass production plant in Ain El Sokhna on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

PepsiCo. In December 2009, International Dairy and Juice Limited, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Almarai, announced that it had acquired Egypt’s International Company for Agro-Industrial Projects (Beyti).

Deals such as these – some of which are now on hold – helped to make Egypt the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment among African nations (behind Angola). In 2008 the U.S.-based National Outsourcing Association named Egypt its “Outsourcing Destination of the Year.”

The appeal of Egypt for foreign investors is not just better access to a market of 80 million consumers. As in China, a repressive political environment has weakened the power of labor and kept down wages to the advantage of major employers, both foreign and domestic.

Egyptian workers have been attempting to build a movement that would help raise their standard of living. A series of labor protests helped pave the way for the current uprising. The group that is credited with sparking the revolt, the April 6 Movement, takes its name from the effort to support workers who launched an aborted general strike in 2008. Hundreds of workers took to the streets of Cairo last May to call for an increase in the country’s pitiful minimum wage while also calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule. And amid the current revolt, Egyptian workers formed a new independent labor federation.

Large corporations try to have it both ways. They promote the view that the expansion of “free” markets goes hand-in-hand with the growth of free societies, yet they do not hesitate to do business in the most repressive societies. And they are quick to take advantage of repression’s side effects, above all weak unions.

However the uprising in Egypt turns out, it has served to highlight the hypocrisy not only of the U.S. government but also that of big business when it comes to selective support for democracy. And like the Obama Administration, major corporations will have to scramble to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history.

European Companies Behaving Badly

Many American workers are irate these days about the jobs that are supposedly being taken away from them by undocumented foreign laborers. A new report from Human Rights Watch shows that the real threat to our living standards may come not from Mexican farmworkers, chambermaids or carwashers but from another group of “illegal” immigrants: European transnational corporations investing in the United States.

These companies – which include the likes of T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom, DHL Express parent Deutsche Post, French construction materials giant Saint-Gobain and Britain’s Wal-Mart rival Tesco – are illegal in the sense that they fail to comply with international labor norms when it comes to their U.S. operations.

Human Rights Watch, usually preoccupied with the mistreatment of dissidents and others in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan, has not hesitated to point out that when it comes to the workplace, the United States is far from a paradigm of respect for individual rights. In 2000 it published a report called Unfair Advantage, which showed how workers’ freedom of association is routinely violated by employers.

Its new report, titled A Strange Case, shows how this pattern of abuse is practiced not only by domestic companies used to a climate of lax labor enforcement, but also by European companies that have much friendlier relations with unions in their home countries and that claim to abide by the principles regarding labor rights included in the declarations and conventions of the International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other global bodies.

Noting that these companies “exploit the loopholes and shortcomings in U.S. labor law” to engage in union avoidance and unionbusting practices, the report states: “The European Dr. Jekyll becomes an American Mr. Hyde.” Another way of putting it is that these companies behave like proper Westerners who indulge in sex with children when traveling to Southeast Asia: they are willing to do things abroad that they would never consider at home.

The Human Rights Watch report documents intimidation tactics used, for example, by T-Mobile in response to an organizing drive led by the Communications Workers of America and by DHL Express in response to a drive launched by the American Postal Workers Union. It also shows how European companies have tried to remove unions already organized, such as the decertification effort by Saint-Gobain against the United Auto Workers at a plant in Massachusetts.  Other case studies show how companies such as Norway’s Kongsberg Automotive use tactics such as the lockout of union workers during contract negotiations that, as the report puts it, are “unheard of in Europe.”

The report points out that these European companies exploiting the lax U.S. labor rights environment are invariably ones that profess to be practitioners of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and that claim to have policies of cooperating with worker organizations throughout their operations. This, along with the fact that environmental criminals such as BP can claim to be CSR advocates, shows that the organizations that rate firms on corporate responsibility have to do a lot more than take company statements at face value.

Although the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t address it, another factor in the ability of European companies to behave badly in the United States is the unwillingness of the unions in their home countries to take aggressive action on this issue. Some of those unions have spoken out forcefully in support of their beleaguered American cousins, but that has not been enough to stop the abuses.

Yet the central problem is not CSR hypocrisy or inadequate labor solidarity, but rather the dismal condition of labor law in the United States. It would be nice if European companies decided on their own accord to treat American workers as they do employees at home, but even better would be if the federal government compelled both foreign and domestic companies to respect the collective bargaining rights of all U.S. workers.

A “Poster Child for Corporate Malfeasance”

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

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?

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

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.