Corporations carry out some of the most horrific human rights abuses of modern times, but it is increasingly difficult to hold them to account. Economic globalization and the rise of transnational corporate power have created a favorable climate for corporate human rights abusers, which are governed principally by the codes of supply and demand and show genuine loyalty only to their stockholders.
Several of the companies below are being sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that allows citizens of any nationality to sue in US federal courts for violations of international rights or treaties. When corporations act like criminals, we have the right and the power to stop them, holding leaders and multinational corporations alike to the accords they have signed. Around the world--in Venezuela, Argentina, India, and right here in the United States--citizens are stepping up to create democracy and hold corporations accountable to international law.
For years, the Caterpillar Company has provided Israel with the bulldozers used to destroy Palestinian homes. Despite worldwide condemnation, Caterpillar has refused to end its corporate participation house demolition by cutting off sales of specially modified D9 and D10 bulldozers to the Israeli military.
In a letter to Caterpillar CEO James Owens, The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights said: "allowing the delivery of your ... bulldozers to the Israeli army ... in the certain knowledge that they are being used for such action, might involve complicity or acceptance on the part of your company to actual and potential violations of human rights..."
Peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed by a Caterpillar D-9, military bulldozer in 2003. She was run over while attempting to block the destruction a family's home in Gaza. Her family filed suit against Caterpillar in March 2005 charging that Caterpillar knowingly sold machines used to violate human rights. Since Corrie's death at least three more Palestinians have been killed in their homes by Israeli bulldozer demolitions.
The petrochemical company Chevron is guilty of some of the worst environmental and human rights abuses in the world. From 1964 to 1992, Texaco (which transferred operations to Chevron after being bought out in 2001) unleashed a toxic "Rainforest Chernobyl" in Ecuador by leaving over 600 unlined oil pits in pristine northern Amazon rainforest and dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic production water into rivers used for bathing water. Llocal communities have suffered severe health effects, including cancer, skin lesions, birth defects, and spontaneous abortions.
Chevron is also responsible for the violent repression of peaceful opposition to oil extraction. In Nigeria, Chevron has hired private military personnel to open fire on peaceful protestors who oppose oil extraction in the Niger Delta.
Additionally Chevron is responsible for widespread health problems in Richmond, California, where one of Chevron's largest refineries is located. Processing 350,000 barrels of oil a day, the Richmond refinery produces oil flares and toxic waste in the Richmond area. As a result, local residents suffer from high rates of lupus, skin rashes, rheumatic fever, liver problems, kidney problems, tumors, cancer, asthma, and eye problems.
The Unocal Corporation, which recently became a subsidiary of Chevron, is an oil and gas company based in California with operations around the world. In December 2004, the company settled a lawsuit filed by 15 Burmese villagers, in which the villagers alleged Unocal's complicity in a range of human rights violations in Burma, including rape, summary execution, torture, forced labor and forced migration.
Coca-Cola Company is perhaps the most widely recognized corporate symbol on the planet. The company also leads in the abuse of workers' rights, assassinations, water privatization, and worker discrimination. Between 1989 and 2002, eight union leaders from Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia were killed after protesting the company's labor practices. Hundreds of other Coca-Cola workers who have joined or considered joining the Colombian union SINALTRAINAL have been kidnapped, tortured, and detained by paramilitaries who are hired to intimidate workers to prevent them from unionizing.
In India, Coca-Cola destroys local agriculture by privatizing the country's water resources. In Plachimada, Kerala, Coca-Cola extracted 1.5 million liters of deep well water, which they bottled and sold under the names Dasani and BonAqua. The groundwater was severely depleted, affecting thousands of communities with water shortages and destroying agricultural activity. As a result, the remaining water became contaminated with high chloride and bacteria levels, leading to scabs, eye problems, and stomach aches in the local population.
Coca-Cola is also one of the most discriminatory employers in the world. In the year 2000, 2,000 African-American employees in the U.S. sued the company for race-based disparities in pay and promotions.
Dow Chemical has been destroying lives and poisoning the planet for decades. The company is best known for the ravages and health disaster for millions of Vietnamese and U.S. Veterans caused by its lethal Vietnam War defoliant, Agent Orange. Dow also developed and perfected Napalm, a brutal chemical weapon that burned many innocents to death in Vietnam and other wars. In 1988, Dow provided pesticides to Saddam Hussein despite warnings that they could be used to produce chemical weapons.
In 2001, Dow inherited the toxic legacy of the worst peacetime chemical disaster in history when it acquired Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and its outstanding liabilities in Bhopal, India. On Dec. 3, 1984, a chemical leak from a UCC pesticide plant in Bhopal gassed thousands of people to death and left more than 150,000 disabled or dying. Dow still refuses to address its liabilities in Bhopal.
Dow Chemical's impact is felt globally from its Midland, Michigan headquarters to New Plymouth, New Zealand. In Midland, Dow has been producing chlorinated chemicals and burning and burying its waste including chemicals that make up Agent Orange. In New Plymouth, 500,000 gallons of Agent Orange were produced and thousands of tons of dioxin-laced waste was dumped in agricultural fields.
Private security contractors have become the fastest-growing sector of the global economy during the last decade--a $100-billion-a-year, nearly unregulated industry. DynCorp, one of the providers of these mercenary services, demonstrates the industry's power and potential to abuse human rights. While guarding Afghan statesmen and African oil fields, training Iraqi police forces, eradicating Colombian coca plants, and protecting business interests in hurricane-devastated New Orleans, these hired guns bolster the security of governments and organizations at the expense of many people's human rights.
DynCorp's fumigation of coca crops along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border led Ecuadorian peasants to sue DynCorp in 2001. Plaintiffs argued that DynCorp knew--or should have known--that the herbicides were highly toxic.
In 2001, a mechanic with DynCorp blew the whistle on DynCorp employees in Bosnia for rape and trading girls as young as 12 into sex slavery. According to a lawsuit filed by the mechanic, "employees and supervisors were engaging in perverse, illegal and inhumane behavior [and] were purchasing illegal weapons, women, [and] forged passports." DynCorp fired the whistleblower and transferred the employees accused of sex trading out of the country, eventually firing some. None were prosecuted.
Ford Motor Company
Among automakers, Ford Motor Company is the worst. Every year since 1999, the US Environmental Protection Agency has ranked Ford cars, trucks and SUVs as having the worst overall fuel economy of any American automaker. Ford's current car and truck fleet has a lower average fuel efficiency than the original Ford Model-T.
Ford is also in last place when it comes to vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ford has "the absolute worst heat-trapping gas emissions performance of all the Big Six automakers."
Despite the company's recent greenwashing PR campaign, its record has actually worsened. According to Ford's own sustainability report, between 2003 and 2004, the company's US fleet-wide fuel economy decreased and its CO2 emissions went up. Ford has also lobbied against lawmakers' efforts to increase fuel economy standards at the national level and is also involved in a lawsuit against California's fuel economy standards.
KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root): A Subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation
KBR is a private company that provides military support services. Notorious for its questionable bookkeeping, dishonest billing practices with US taxpayer dollars and no-bid contracts, KBR has violated human rights on the U.S. dollar.
KBR's dubious accounting in Iraq came to light in December 2003 when Pentagon auditors questioned possible overcharges for imported gasoline. In June 2005, a previously secret Pentagon audit criticized $1.4 billion in "questioned" and "unsupported" expenditures. In 2002 the company paid $2 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit that accused KBR of inflating contract prices at Fort Ord, California.
Many third-country national (TCN) laborers have been hired by KBR to "rebuild" Iraq. Generally hailing from impoverished Asian countries, they have unexpectedly become part of the largest civilian workforce ever hired in support of a U.S. war. Once abroad, the workers find themselves with few protections and uncertain legal status. TCNs often sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in scorching heat for food rations. Many lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, 10 hours or more a day.
Lockheed Martin is the world's largest military contractor. Providing satellites, planes, missiles and other lethal high-tech items to the Pentagon keeps the profits rolling in. Since 2000, the year Bush was elected, the company's stock value has tripled.
As the Center for Corporate Policy (www.corporatepolicy.org) notes, it is no coincidence that Lockheed VP Bruce Jackson--who helped draft the Republican foreign policy platform in 2000--is a key player at the Project for a New American Century, the intellectual incubator of the Iraq war.
Lockheed Martin is not the only defense contractor that goes behind the scenes to influence public policy, but it is one of the worst. Stephen J. Hadley, who now has Condoleeza Rice's old job as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, was formerly a partner in a DC law firm representing Lockheed Martin. He is only one of the beneficiaries of the so-called revolving door between the military industries and the "civilian" national security apparatus. These war profiteers have a profound and illegitimate influence on our country's international policy decisions.
Monsanto is, by far, the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds in the world, dominating 70% to 100% of the market for crops such as soy, cotton, wheat and corn.
Monsanto is the world's leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup. Roundup is sold to small farmers as a pesticide, yet harms crops in the long run as the toxins accumulate in the soil. Plants eventually become infertile, forcing farmers to purchase genetically modified Roundup Ready Seed, a seed that resists the herbicide. This creates a cycle of dependency on Monsanto for both the weed killer and the only seed that can resist it. Both products are patented, and sold at inflated prices. Exposure to the pesticide is documented to cause cancers, skin disorders, spontaneous abortions, premature births, and damage to the gastrointestinal and nervous systems.
According to the India Committee of the Netherlands and the International Labor Rights Fund, Monsanto also employs child labor. In India, an estimated 12,375 children work in cottonseed production for farmers paid by Indian and multinational seed companies, including Monsanto.
The problem of illegal and forced child labor is rampant in the chocolate industry, because more than 40% of the world's cocoa supply comes from the Ivory Coast, a country that the US State Department estimates had approximately 109,000 child laborers working in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms. In 2001, Save the Children Canada reported that 15,000 children between 9 and 12 years old, many from impoverished Mali, had been tricked or sold into slavery on West African cocoa farms, many for just $30 each.
Nestle, the third largest buyer of cocoa from the Ivory Coast, is well aware of the tragically unjust labor practices taking place on the farms with which it continues to do business. Nestle and other chocolate manufacturers agreed to end the use of abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by July 1, 2005, but they failed to do so.
Nestle is also notorious for its aggressive marketing of infant formula in poor countries in the 1980s. Because of this practice, Nestle is still one of the most boycotted corporations in the world, and its infant formula is still controversial. In Italy in 2005, police seized more than two million liters of Nestle infant formula that was contaminated with the chemical isopropylthioxanthone (ITX).
Additionally, violations of labor rights are reported from Nestle factories in numerous countries. In Colombia, Nestle replaced the entire factory staff with lower-wage workers and did not renew the collective employment contract.
Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International (a.k.a. The Altria Group Inc.)
Among tobacco companies, Philip Morris is notorious. Now called Altria, it is the world's largest and most profitable cigarette corporation and maker of Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Parliament, Basic and many other brands of cigarettes.
Documents uncovered in a lawsuit filed against the tobacco industry by the state of Minnesota showed that Philip Morris and other leading tobacco corporations knew very well of the dangers of tobacco products and the addictiveness of nicotine. To this day, Philip Morris deceives consumers about the harm of its products by offering light, mild and low-tar cigarettes that give consumers the illusion these brands are "healthier" than traditional cigarettes.
Although the company says it doesn't want kids to smoke, it spends millions of dollars every day marketing and promoting cigarettes to youth. Overseas, it has even hired underage "Marlboro girls" to distribute free cigarettes to other children and sponsored concerts where cigarettes were handed out to minors.
As anti-tobacco campaigns and government regulations are slowing tobacco use in Western countries, Philip Morris has aggressively moved into developing country markets, where smoking and smoking-related deaths are on the rise. Preliminary numbers released by the World Health Organization predict global deaths due to smoking-related illnesses will nearly double by 2020, with more than three-quarters of those deaths in the developing world.
Pfizer is the largest pharmaceutical company in the world; it is also one of the worst abusers of the human right of universal access to HIV/AIDS medicine.
In addition to Viagra, Zoloft, Zithromax and Norvasc, Pfizer produces the drug fluconazole (an antifungal used by AIDS patients) under the name Diflucan, and sells it at inflated prices most poor people cannot afford. The company refuses to grant generic licenses of fluconazole to governments in countries like Brazil, South Africa, or Dominican Republic, where patients are forced to pay $20 per weekly pill, though the average national wage is only $120 per month.
Pfizer also values shareholder profits over safety standards. In Europe in 2005, it withdrew from scientific studies of a new class of AIDS drugs called CCR5 inhibitors, choosing instead to rush its own untested CCR5 inhibitor onto the European market without full information about the drug's side effects.
Suez-Lyonnaise Des Eaux (SLDE)
The privatization of water has had a disastrous impact on the human right to clean water, and the French company Suez is the worst perpetrator of this abuse. The company's billions of dollars in profit come at the expense of poor people living in countries where thousands lack access to potable water, and, because of private water contracts, are also facing skyrocketing water prices.
Suez goes by many names around the world--Ondeo, SITA and others--to mask its worldwide net of controversial activities. In Manila, Philippines, after seven years of water privatization under a Suez company (Maynilad Water) contract, studies showed that water rates increased in some neighborhoods by 400 to 700 percent. These studies also showed that the negligence of the company resulted in cholera and gastroenteritis outbreaks that killed six people and severely sickened 725 in Manila's Tondo district.
In Bolivia, a Suez company (Aguas de Illimani) left 200,000 people without access to water and caused a revolt when it tried to charge between $335 and $445 to connect a private home to the water supply. Countless people were unable to afford this charge in a country whose yearly per capita GDP is $915.
Unfortunately, the IMF and World Bank are playing a key role in pushing water privatization all over the world. Many countries have been required to open up their water supply to private companies as a condition for receiving IMF loans, and the World Bank has approved millions of dollars in loans for the privatization of water systems.
Wal-Mart is the biggest corporation in the world. It owns 5,100 stores worldwide and employs 1.3 million workers in the United States and 400,000 abroad, as well as millions more in the factories of its suppliers.
Many people have heard of the way that Wal-Mart steamrolls its way into every possible town, destroying local supermarkets and countless small businesses. We have also heard about Wal-Mart's long track record of worker abuse, from forced overtime to sex discrimination to illegal child labor to relentless union busting. Wal-Mart also notoriously fails to provide health insurance to over half of its employees, who are then left to rely on themselves or taxpayers, who provide for a portion of their healthcare needs through government Medicaid.
Less well known is the fact that Wal-Mart maintains its low price level by allowing substandard labor conditions at the overseas factories producing most of its goods. The company continually demands lower prices from its suppliers, who, in turn, make more outrageous and abusive demands on their workers in order to meet Wal-Mart's requirements.
In September 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wal-Mart supplier sweatshop workers in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Swaziland. The workers were denied minimum wages, forced to work overtime without compensation, and were denied legally mandated health care. Other worker rights violations that have been found in foreign factories that produce goods for Wal-Mart include locked bathrooms, starvation wages, pregnancy tests, denial of access to health care, and workers being fired and blacklisted if they try to defend their rights.