Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let's hope BP victims don't suffer the fate of those in Bhopal or those of the big U.S. fruit companies in Latin America

Big corporations in general don't have a particularly admirable record when it comes to social justice and human rights, and the U.S. government has been usually unwilling or reluctant at best to play any kind of role in improving that record.en

Many citizens who've suffered as a result of BP's giant oil spill in the Gulf Coast are still waiting on their claims. Complaints are already coming in, and BP's legion of lawyers are certain to look for any loopholes that their client can slip through. That's despite the federal government's demand that BP establish a $20 billion fund to repair the damages it has wrought.

A reminder of the long, sordid history of corporate malfeasance is ever present in faraway Bhopal, India, where a toxic leak from a Union Carbide pesticides plant killed nearly 4,000 on Dec. 3, 1984. Ultimately, more than 20,000 died from the disaster, and many more suffered life-debilitating injuries, including a second generation of birth defects and other health problems.

In fact, people across the entire nation of India are up in arms these days over the 26-year legal case that was only recently resolved with minimal sentences for seven defendants and minimal fines, too. Although victims are getting as little as $330 each for their suffering, both the U.S. and Indian governments appear ready to wash their hands of the matter and move on. Indian activist and writer N. Gunasekaran has written eloquently about the issue.

That quarter-century legal maze bring to mind the spirit-numbing Court of Chancery in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Let's hope Gulf Coast victims don't suffer a similar fate.

Perhaps you recall the investigative project undertaken by the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer on Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, Inc., (formerly the notorious United Fruit Company) in the 1990s. The newspaper and Gannett dropped the story after Chiquita threatened a lawsuit as a result of stolen voice-mail used in the investigation. Yes, dropped the story despite mountains of testimony regarding the practices of Chiquita in Central America. Bribes, behind-the-scenes deals to circumvent labor regulations, and environmental damage were all part of that dropped story.

Chiquita still faces legal disputes with victims as well as governments in the region, and with its own government due to its relationship with militia groups there. Guess who was one of Chiquita's top lawyers during these disputes. None other than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Dole Food Company, formerly the Standard Fruit Company, isn't much better. It was the only major multinational company in the region to refuse to join an agreement in 1997 giving $41.5 million to some 26,000 workers. Five years later, a Nicaraguan tribunal ordered Dole and other companies to pay $489 million to workers suffering from exposure to Nemagon, a dangerous pesticide long banned in the United States. Nemagon is believed to have caused cancer, sterility, kidney and skin diseases, and birth deformities in workers and their families.

Ironically, the owner of the Dole Food Company, David Murdock, is the same corporate honcho who once owned the Cannon Mills textile company in Kannapolis, N.C., sold it, and left town with the hard-earned pension money of its employees. Eventually forced to pay back a paltry $1 million of the $39 million he took from the pension fund's excess assets, Murdock later returned and won over the town's skeptical, rightly bitter residents by promising a new research "biopolis" in Kannapolis that would "teach people about proper health, nutrition, and wellness" (Murdock's own words).

I was the first to publish the irony of Murdock's unhealthy Central American activities and his "proper health" activities in North Carolina. It appeared in my 2008 book, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press.

Do you think research plans at Murdock's "biopolis" included studies of nemagon?

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