Multinationals exploit and only we can stop them

By playing David to the corporate Goliath, Nader has shown how much difference one individual can make
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The Independent Online
En route to Nepal to film with the BBC, and my in-flight reading includes Newsweek, where I find an appaling advertorial about investing in Nigeria. The only thing missing was the statement made last June by a corporate spokesperson in Nigeria - words to the effect that dictatorships offer a stable environment for investment.

That line of thought appeals to the multinational giants of the business world. They don't figure into their bottom line the human cost of a despot's guarantees. Nigeria is proof. Shell's profit-uber-alles approach led to environmental degradation in the Niger delta, the government-mandated murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists who protested at the pollution, and the continued incarceration without trial of another 19. It was, to put it mildly, a public relations disaster of epic proportions for the company, and as a result, terms such as "human rights" have crept into the Shell lexicon.

But how ready is Shell to put its money where its mouth is? This July, it plans to join other companies in drilling for natural gas in a rain forest reserve that Peru's government has set aside as a homeland for "uncontacted" indigenous peoples. The 2,200 square mile area also has one of the highest number of animal, bird, insect and plant populations found anywhere on the planet.

Shell promises cutting-edge social and environmental responsibility, but after only a few weeks of preparatory work, villagers are already tracking changes in their environment, and this is months before the actual extraction starts, with its inevitable toxic wastes and gas flares. Alan Hunt, Shell's chief executive in Peru, is nervous enough to admit the company needs "criticism from the outside" in the form of monitoring by a third party. But why not cancel the plans altogether? That would be the real cutting edge of corporate responsibility.

ONE OF the most insidious features of the multinationals is their sheer scale. They depend on their size to cow opposition and make them invulnerable to consumer protests. But Ralph Nader, America's best-known consumer activist, proves how wrong they are. He is the man I am most in awe of, and more than anyone or anything else, he has shaped my thinking on the politics of business. All his life, he has played David to the corporate Goliath, and he has proved how much difference one individual can make. He is the most feared man in corporate America. At least they got that right - Ralph's obsessiveness is scary. I can never relax around him.

Still, as driven and reclusive as he is, he shows up in opinion polls as one of the few people in Washington that ordinary Americans trust, and it's not hard to see why. He poses the simple question we all need to be asking: why shouldn't business be as responsible as an individual is expected to be? The fact that the corporate world is so amoral is an obscenity to Ralph. His undiminished capacity for outrage inspires me.

BUT I'M also inspired by Ralph's faith in the citizen as the agent of change, the heart and soul of the political process. People power works. We saw it in the streets of Belgium last year, in Belgrade this. And in the corporate world, the all-consuming bottom line is also an Achilles heel. Boycotts are bad for business. Hence Shell's new sensitivity to public opinion. Are BP and Occidental listening? There are big questions about alleged human rights abuses by BP employees in Colombia.

And as of last week, 4,000 members of the U'wa tribe are threatening to commit mass suicide if Occidental subsidiary Oxy forges ahead with its plans for oil exploration on their ancestral lands, also in Colombia. The U'wa believe drilling for oil will wound "Mother Earth", creating lethal consequences for the whole of humanity. They say they weren't consulted before the project was mooted. After a successful legal challenge by the community, there is a 30-day reprieve to carry out that consultation, at the end of which period, the government could still make a decision to let Oxy proceed with the drilling. But whatever happens next, it happens in an international spotlight, with vigilant - and vigilante - consumers ready to flex their financial muscle. These oil giants are learning that they can no longer hide behind consumer ignorance or indifference.

HERE'S another word of warning, again courtesy of Ralph Nader. Have you noticed that kids are being raised by the multinationals? They entertain them, feed them, clothe them, medicate them, addict them, define the ways they relate to each other. Which is, I suppose, why some of them feel so comfortable shrouding their corporate mission in family values. So there's a mordant irony in the Walt Disney Company's selection by the US corporate watchdog magazine Multinational Monitor as one of the Ten Worst Corporations of 1996. Disney is blasted for its refusal to pay decent wages to contract workers in Thailand, Haiti, even the US. Haitian contractors producing children's clothing under licence to Disney are paying workers 28 cents an hour, or about seven cents for every garment they make.

Knowing this, how many of us would next time change our mind about buying Pocahontas's pjs, Mickey Mouse T-shirts or Dalmatian-spotted sweats for a child? In other factories producing Disney clothing, workers earn as little as $1 a day - 12 cents an hour. (Haiti's legally mandated minimum wage is 30 cents an hour.) The workers' call for a living wage - 58 cents an hour - has fallen on deaf ears at Disney. It's the licensees' problem, they say. To interfere would be "an inappropriate use of our authority", according to a Disney spokesperson. So how about an appropriate use of our authority as consumers? Avoid all things Disney till Mickey's kingdom honours the basic human rights of all its subjects.