Why It’s Getting Harder to Stop Corporate Human Rights Abuses

This video, and the article it’s based on, are the culmination of about 10 years of feeling increasingly powerless in what I do for a living.

Things were never good in Chisumbanje, but they have never been this bad. One of Chachengwa’s granddaughters is 13 years old. After she stopped going to school because Chachengwa couldn’t afford the tuition anymore, she became one of the many wives of a village elder. She’s already pregnant. The daughters of Chachengwa’s neighbors and friends have jumped the border to Mozambique, becoming prostitutes in the cities or on the highways, making just enough money to eat plus a little extra to send back home. The men were promised jobs on the sugarcane plantations, but the company running them only hires temporary workers and pays just $2, plus a warm meal, for a day’s work.


You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m about to tell you that the company behind all this is Monsanto, or Shell, or Coca-Cola. That your car is running on the ethanol this plant is producing. That the U.S. government is funding or facilitating or failing to prevent what is taking place here.

But none of that is true. The company responsible for all this is called Green Fuel. It is headquartered in Zimbabwe, it isn’t listed on any stock exchange, it doesn’t sell any products in the United States, and it has no Western investors.

And it is, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. When you think of the worst abuses in poor countries — land grabs, sweatshops, cash-filled envelopes passed to politicians — you probably think they’re committed by companies based in rich ones: Nike in Indonesia, Shell in Nigeria, Dow in Bhopal, India.

These are the cases you’re most likely to hear about, but they are no longer representative of how these abuses actually take place — or who commits them. These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard. They come from places like China and South Africa and Russia. The countries where they are headquartered are unable to regulate them, and the countries where they operate are unwilling to.

Every time I travel to Africa to find out how corporations are violating human rights, I hear the same thing: The western companies, the ones we boycott and rally against and shout down, aren’t the worst offenders. In fact, they’re barely on the radar. The worst companies, the ones that really terrify people, are the Chinese, the Korean and the Indian ones.

For years now I’ve been asking people in my field, at conferences, during trainings: What are we doing about south-based companies? 

So far, the answer I hear the most is that we have to wait for consumer movements to spring up in the BRICs, for Chinese consumers to chase down their companies in Africa the way we chased down Nike in Indonesia.

In other words, what we should do is a) wait and b) hope.

That fucking sucks, obviously, but it’s not like I have a better answer. When you write these articles you always have to end on a note of optimism, no matter how false, just so you don’t drag readers down into despair with you. But somehow I couldn’t muster that this time. I genuinely don’t know what to do about this problem and, as far as I can tell, no one else does either.


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6 responses to “Why It’s Getting Harder to Stop Corporate Human Rights Abuses

  1. I like your ‘heartfelt’ despair (I’m not being sarcastic I just don’t know how heart felt you intend it to come across). Wait and hope is a defeatist attitude (perhaps you think of it as a clear-eyed assessment).

    I’d add to 1) – not just wait but encourage consumer movements : people who’ve studied abroad and return home, academic conferences? (these suggestions are terribly ineffectual but surely there are some more better points of leverage that work for the same cause). Again, movements in other countries are unlikely to function on the same logic as have western variants- so study and find out what the possibilities are.

    I would also add that it’s very important that pressure continues to be exerted on Western mega corps. Because if we don’t remove the plank from our eye, how can we criticise dev economies for their speck? [they know this well – it’s our Achilles heel in many of our supposed principled objections]

    And how about western mega corps exert pressure on countries to raise the laws so they’re not disadvantaged for doing all the costly feel-good reform. (I mentioned this in a response to your earlier ethical shopper crit: http://tinyurl.com/zvmzyy2 ). I’m no expert so this area so the ideas may sound a bit naive.

  2. Sorry, missed the video with my first comment. Great video!
    You raise the problem – now the hard work for a solution.

    The west has been immensely rich this last century and we’ve done some good stuff, but relative to our wealth it seems pretty paltry – now with diminishing power we turn to growing giants and ask them to follow our example? Hmm.

  3. I think what we can do is bring attention to it and change conventional thinking. For one the Western world and mainly white western people are being shown as horrible evil men, yet there is much corruption going on in many other places by many groups of people. The light should be shown on all evil and not just one flavor of evil.

  4. I’m glad you feel a heartfelt frustration too ….that’s what’s missing in business …some kind of social concience and humanity …yep I’m afraid globally there seems to be a kind of facist capitalism going on …based on the pure greed of monetry gain and the power that brings …..and yep the ideology was formed in the west and exported …it’s corrupt as hell …..and I live in the UK so I guess you would call me a ‘westerner’ ….us ordinary folk are being screwed here too but I know it’s a matter of scale …..I don’t know the answers either ….I do think us all using our ‘buying power’ can go SOME ways ….you know …like boycotting a particular product or brand ..which is what I do on a personal level ….AWARENESS comes first tho ….and I guess Cameron’s right …that comes from campaigns….airing your frustrations in your blog is a start to the discussion at least ….keep your passion but don’t loose heart ….it IS frustrating feeling your battling against the machine

  5. Pingback: Why It’s Getting Harder to Stop Corporate Human Rights Abuses — – hilomobelzcom

  6. An excellent article – I used the FP piece in my Intro to Globalization class at UCLA. It is an excellent way to get the students thinking about divergent globalization. Cheers!