From Bangladesh to Brazil, how do big companies keep getting away with it?

01 November 2016

I’d never really thought about where the giant ships that transport our goods around the world end up after they’ve served their purpose. But last week I heard the story of how most of them are sent to be broken up in South Asia. Giant metal carcasses washed up on muddy beaches where people dismantle them by hand to get hold of valuable metals.

The consequences of the ship breaking industry are devastating. Toxic materials like the cancer-causing asbestos are poisoning both workers and the environment. And hundreds of people have been injured while breaking up the ships.

Rizwana Hassan, a campaigner from Bangladesh, told the story at a United Nations meeting  in Geneva in front of member state delegates. I was there, along with hundreds of other civil society representatives from across the world, to follow negotiations for a new international treaty to hold corporations to account for their human rights abuses.

Calling time on corporate crime

Many of today’s huge corporations have developed into global entities so large that they have bigger annual incomes than entire countries. With this wealth comes considerable power over the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not least those who depend on them for work or those who live in the areas they operate in. From oil spills to the killing of trade unionists and forced displacement of whole communities, corporations are guilty of some of the worst human rights violations. But they often get away with these crimes because there’s a lack of legal structures to prosecute them internationally.

That is why governments and campaigners from across the world are getting together to try and make an international treaty that will enable victims of corporation's human rights abuses to seek justice. A justice that is all too often lacking now.

Rizwana’s story echoes a pattern in the relations between big business and countries in the global south. While most of the approximately 1,000 ships that get broken down every year are owned by big companies based in rich countries, particularly in Europe, the vast majority are ending up on the beaches of poor countries like Bangladesh. In the 1970’s most ships were broken down and recycled in Europe, but since then the ship dismantling business has followed cheap labour and weak environmental regulations via Taiwan and South Korea to places like Bangladesh. Perhaps the most famous example of is the Trafigura case where toxic waste from a ship owned by the Dutch company Trafigua killed 15 people and made up to 108,000 people ill. But this is a problem that stretches far beyond the shipping industry. For many corporations the global south has become a dumping ground for toxic waste and a source of expendable, cheap labour. 

The story of the ship breaking industry is not unique. Campaigners from Brazil told the UN meeting about the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster, which happened only last year. A giant dam holding back waste water from a big mine owned by Vale and BHP Billiton collapsed and unleashed 60 million cubic meters of iron waste, killing at least 17 people and causing one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.

Though mining giant Vale has signed up to support high human rights standards for companies, the company is, we were told, trying to find loopholes that allow them to escape justice by claiming that the Bento Rodrigues dam is a separate legal entity and therefore not their responsibility.

Beyond corporate social responsibility

While corporations have lined up to show how great and responsible they are by signing up to corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, little seems to be changing on the ground. If you’re a victim of a human rights abuse, it doesn’t really matter how many sustainability awards the perpetrating company has won. We need actions, not words and upholding human rights should be a binding responsibility for corporations just as it is for the rest of us.

That’s why international binding law is necessary. Last month, 90,000 people across Europe put pressure on their governments to take part in the negotiations in Geneva. The EU – including the UK – did take part of the negotiations in Geneva, but there’s still a long way to go to get the legally binding treaty that we need to hold corporations to account for their crimes.

Photo: Ship Breaking in Chittagong Bangladesh. By Adam Cohn/flickr


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