In May, the World Development Movement (WDM) launched ‘People Before Profits’, a campaign designed to expose multinationals’ abuse of human rights, workers’ rights and the environment.
The activities of five multinational companies Nestlé’s, Rio Tinto, Shell, P&O and Premier Oil were highlighted through a week of direct action at the companies’ respective AGMs. ‘The idea of the People Before Profits campaign, a WDM spokesperson told CARF, ‘is to point to ways that campaigners can hold multinationals to account. On the one hand, we want to increase shareholders’ awareness about the powers they hold. But we also want to generate debate and media interest.’
Multinationals and repression
The action at Rio Tinto’s AGM was to draw attention to the multinational’s abuse, through its American sister company Freeport McMoran, of the Amungme tribal people of Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua) where RT has invested 500m in the expansion of the Grasberg mine, transforming forested hills into a vast complex of mines, roads, towns and the world’s largest tramway, and polluting rivers with 100,000 tonnes of waste each day. Yosepha Alomang, an Amungme leader who has been imprisoned and tortured for voicing dissent, was prevented from travelling to the UK to attend the AGM by Indonesian security forces. Alomang was also due to testify at an alternative factual general meeting organised by WDM and other campaigning groups.
In both Nigeria and Indonesia, multinationals have relied on the direct intervention of the military to pursue their objectives. Another country where there is a direct link between human rights abuses, the activities of multinationals and the creation of refugees, is Burma, where the UK-based international exploration and production company, Premier Oil, has formed a partnership with the military regime to develop offshore gas reserves. ‘This will provide the regime with a new source of revenue and will fuel oppression in a country where torture, forced labour and human rights abuses are routine and widespread,’ says the Burma Action Group. Already 25,000 people have been forcibly moved from the Tenasserim region to make way for the pipelines, originally laid by Total and Unacol, and forced labour including women and children, the sick and the elderly has been used to build roads and military barracks. According to campaigners, Premier Oil is benefiting, albeit second hand, from the increased military presence initially needed to secure the area for the. And in a video statement smuggled out of Burma, the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi calls for Premier to withdraw its investment, arguing that ‘it is doing a great disservice to the cause of democracy’ and ‘should be ashamed of itself’.
The People’s indictment
Many campaigning groups find public hearings an effective way of drawing attention to the activities of multinational companies. Thus, in May, the Permanent People’s Tribunal, also known as the Basso Tribunal (since 1979, successor to the Bertrand Russell Tribunal) held a special hearing in Brussels on the subject of workers’ and consumers’ rights in the garment industry. Following a request from the International Clean Clothes Campaign, the tribunal focused on the activities of seven multinational companies involved in the garment trade Nike, Levi Strauss, C&A, H&M, Adidas, Otto Versand and Walt Disney.
The tribunal heard the testimonies of 15 witnesses (workers, researchers, trades unionists and NGO representatives from Asia, Africa and Latin America), as well as reports from ten Clean Clothes Campaigns from across Europe. It concluded that clothes made for export to the European market are made on the basis of gross violations of basic labour rights for which the responsibility lies squarely with the multinationals both retailers and producers. Now, the International Forum on Clean Clothes will take the momentum built up over the tribunal to the World Cup, where it will draw attention to the activities of World Cup sponsors Adidas. At the same time as Adidas has closed practically all of its European factories, 98% of production has been subcontracted to countries in the Third World offering cheap labour. Could this be because Adidas is the only one of the main producers of sports equipment not to have a code of conduct and to ignore all consumer requests for information on working conditions?
Fortress Europe, corporate Europe
The issues thrown up by these counter-globalisation networks also bring another dimension to anti-racist campaigns against Fortress Europe. The Europe that denies citizenship rights, encourages repatriation and clamps down on refugee rights, is also the Europe that represents the interests of the European multinationals. Big business is increasingly setting the agenda in the UK, say campaigners. They are angry at a new scheme to give public companies including those involved in the arms trade exclusive access to Labour’s policy-making process for subscriptions of 1000. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, ‘This kind of access and influence is clearly unethical: it’s the tail wagging the dog, something we’ve suspected for a long time.’
As EU leaders meet in Cardiff in July for the next European Summit, ‘Reclaim Europe’ (set up following the Amsterdam ‘Eurotop’ Alternative Summit in June 1997) will be organising an Alternative Summit, drawing attention to the real dynamic forces behind EU policy and the greater global drive toward free trade and international competitiveness. One campaign which will certainly feature high on the campaigners’ agenda is the UK Presidency Project, a coalition of more than 200 of the UK’s voluntary sector development agencies, set up to monitor the UK’s European Presidency in relation to the Lomé Convention, the EU Code of Conduct on Arms and other development issues. Its most immediate concern will be to draw attention to a meeting of European agricultural ministers on 22 June, where the future of the EU’s trade policy on Caribbean bananas will be decided. In the past, Caribbean farmers have had preferential access to the European banana market. But now this relationship is under threat. The World Trade Organisation has ruled it discriminatory; in future the small-scale producers of the Caribbean Islands must compete with multinationals such as Dole and Del Monte which own huge banana plantations in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. According to the Windward Island Farmers’ Association, ‘If protection is taken away, the result is likely to be cataclysmic, plunging the people of these island states into poverty, unemployment and economic unrest.’ More repression and another refugee crisis will follow as surely as night follows day.