IN BANDUNG in Indonesia, Siti brings her chickens and coconuts to the market. Later in the day she makes her way through the busy streets to a shop where all kinds of goods jostle side by side. Inside she picks up a plastic bottle of herbicide, containing 2,4,5-T, and asks the shopkeeper for an anti-diarrhoeal drug for her little boy Bambung. The shopkeeper hands her a bubble pack of Entero-Vioform. Siti did not know that 2,4,5-T is a severely restricted herbicide in the West. She did not know about its suspected mutagenic properties. No-one told her as she crushed the Entero-Vioform tablet for her child that these pills contained clioquinol which had caused SMON nerve disease killing hundreds and paralysing thousands in Japan. Siti didn’t know she was being dumped on.
Dumping - the export of hazardous of inappropriate products and unsafe factory processes to the Third World - has been dubbed ‘the corporate crime of the century’ by the US magazine Mother Jones. The scale and scope of this bad business is only just coming to light. Here are some examples:
• After the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device killed at least 17 women in the US, the manufacturer withdrew it from the domestic market. Half a million were then sold overseas and they are still in use in some countries.
• Some farmers and over 1,000 water buffalo died suddenly in Egypt after being exposed to leptophos, a chemical pesticide which was never registered for domestic use in the US but was exported to many countries.
• No-one knows how many children may have developed cancer since several million children’s garments treated with a carcinogenic fire-retardant called Tris were shipped overseas from the US after being forced off the home market.
• A UK company’s asbestos factory in Bombay, India, was found to have high levels of air pollution and inadequate safety controls as well as little information for workers about the dangers they are exposed to.
Nearly all the industrialised countries are guilty of dumping. Why are they able to do it so easily? Many Third World countries do not have adequate import control mechanisms. Very often the regulatory body consists of just one or two people who cannot possibly handle all the work. Dr Frank del Prado of the Surinans Ministry of Agriculture added ‘We try to be as careful as possible, but we still must depend on information received from importers who would like to sell their products. We lack not only laboratory equipment (for testing) but also trained personnel’. Illiteracy, graft and government negligence all help grease the wheels of the dumping machine.
The pressure for sales is great in the world of corporate competition. New outlets are always being sought and the Third World’s unsophisticated market place is alluring. All kinds of incentives are used to hype the sales. One doctor explained that in the Philippines some drug companies offer incentives such as a car or a refrigerator in order to get the doctors’ commitments to prescribe only their products. Sometimes drug companies even ‘employ beautiful women as drug representatives to advertise their products to doctors’.
All the signs suggest that dumping is likely to grow in the future with rising imports into the Third World of chemicals. From 1970 to 1978 the export of these chemicals from the West to developing countries rose by nearly 500 per cent.
Vital information on the careful and proper use and possible side-effects of a product often goes missing in the Third World. ‘If there are no side-effects, this must be Honduras’ quipped an American journalist in 1979 and sadly things are not much better today. Labels on goods are often scanty, instructions may not even be in the local language. Over half of the pesticides on sale in Mexico, for example, are insufficiently or incorrectly labelled. And since less than 25 per cent of deaths are properly recorded in developing countries no-one knows the total number of those mortally affected by poisonous substances.
Many Third World countries look to the West for all that’s best. There is a vicarious sense of being part of that glittering world of Dallas or the British Royal Family if you use the West’s products; that if you smoke a Benson and Hedges cigarette in your damp squatter shack you will miraculously share the benefits of the society that produced the brand.
There is also a faith in the quality of Western exports - a confidence that the goods are safety checked and of a high standard making them worth the extra they usually cost. And it’s not just consumer products which are at fault. Dumping goes on with capital equipment of all kinds, and this probably has a more damaging effect on fragile economies. It’s a matter of simple deduction. If capital goods and technical equipment are sub-standard, then repairs, maintenance and long delays whilst equipment lies broken saps the country’s foreign-exchange and diverts resources from import ant areas of public spending.
It is not only the corporations who are responsible for dumping. Some Western governments acquiesce in it by turning a blind eye or even funding the dump. Despite reports of the dangers of the Dalkon Shield contraceptive, the US Agency for International Development bought up half million of them, unsterilised, for distribution in the Third World. One set of instructions for each thousand devices. Some Third World governments, too, are to blame. Hell-bent on economic growth as the path to development, they have welcomed hazardous goods and even whole factories without a thought to the damage they are doing to their people and the environment.
‘The feeling in Indonesia is that environment is a luxury’, said a local chemical engineer. ‘We can’t afford to make a fuss about industrial pollution because that’s the price we have to pay for development.
Many industry and government spokes-people believe that what they are doing is right, that more chemicals for instance will result in more food and that factories transplanted from the West generate jobs and money. US Congressman George Miller, testifying in the 1980 hearings on hazardous imports, likened this attitude to the military and colonial imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: ‘Just as military imperialism was justified for its ‘civilising effects, so the dumping of dangerous industries and products has been rationalised because it stimulates economic development and modernisation. Such practices are immoral because they inherently assume that the resources and the people of the Third World should be sacrificed for the comfort and profit of the major industrial powers.’
‘We see nothing wrong in helping the hungry world eat’, said Richard Blewitt, vice-president of public relations in the Velsicol Chemical Company. On the face of it this demonstrates just a skewed vision of the world - the world already produces more than enough food but the hungry cannot afford to buy it. However Blewitt’s words have a more worrying aspect when you realise that he was speaking in defence of his company’s overseas sales of leptophos, a vicious chemical that killed farmers and water buffalo in Egypt and had never been registered for use in the US.
The financial imperative lies at the heart of dumping. When home regulations start to bite, the quest for rich returns on investment speeds industrial flight to the developing countries. The US trade magazine Chemical Week reported that US chemical firms spend 44 per cent less on pollution control at their overseas plants than at those inside the country.
The duty to shareholders to maximise dividends and the fight to keep one step ahead of the competition means that every cent invested has to clone itself and fast. Having a product heavily restricted or banned in the home market unless it can be sold off elsewhere can make a heavy dent in the company ledger.
When local subsidiaries of multinational companies arrive in developing countries they quickly settle down to the generally low market place standards. Of course there have been honourable exceptions. For example, the Wall Street Journal found Britain’s Chloride Group, who manufacture lead-acid batteries, to be observing the same standards of control in Malaysia as at home. But many subsidiaries cut corners on worker safety and quality of products, feeling no need to preserve the higher standards demanded in the West. Footloose and fancy free, some local subsidiaries carry on in a way that their parent companies do not want to know about - permitting grossly dangerous workplace conditions or making absurd advertising promises for their products.
Most international attempts so far to contain industries’ excesses have been pallid and uncoordinated and only for the benefit of a few countries or groups. However, in the twilight of his days in the White House, Jimmy Carter signed a presidential executive order to control the export of hazardous substances. It was the first major attempt by an industrialised country to act responsibly to control dumping by its national companies. No sooner had President Reagan taken over the Oval Office than he swept the new order into oblivion, just 34 days after it came into being.
Big international corporations usually jump in one of two ways when faced with such regulatory moves. They either join forces and produce their own code of conduct (which the baby milk companies did to try and forestall the ‘restrictive’ code suggested by the World Health Assembly) or they will threaten to cut back on research saying the money they would have spent in this area is needed to conform to the new regulations.
The first response goes down well with the public since it shows the companies acting quickly and ‘responsibly’ to put their houses in order. On closer inspection however industry’s codes of conduct can be as leaky as sieves, full of carefully worded phrases that promise nothing.
The second argument, the threat to reduce investment if new regulations come in, is just as unconvincing. Dr Alan Hayes. ICI’s Plant Protection Division chairman, commented that ‘the public stance of the (pharmaceutical) industry has been to state categorically that if the regulations are not relaxed, then no new medicines will appear. . . The financial results of the industry continue to be an embarrassing counter-argument.
So we can safely assume that regulations drawn up by an independent body to control the export of hazardous products to the Third World will not mean the end of multinational company operations. Controlling such exports is what the UN is trying to do with the December 1982 resolution (see the action page). They have requested UN members to prepare a list of products whose consumption and/or sale have been ‘banned, withdrawn, severely restricted or not approved’ in their own country. This list should contain both generic and brand names as well as manufacturers’ names and the grounds for the restriction or ban. A merged list of all such suspect products would then be drawn up, invaluable reference for information-starved importers in the developing world.
Dumping can also be tackled by the publicity efforts of individuals and concerned groups. Respectable companies do not like having their dirtiest linen washed in public. Each time a case of dumping comes to light there is a flurry of public relations activity to smooth away the ruffles. And as more incidents surface, the PR people will have their work cut out for them, Industry is both alert to and sensitive about the dumping issue. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry annual report and the Agrochemical Manufacturers’ group bulletin both spoke of the policing activity of consumer groups like the International Organisation of Consumers’ Unions and Pesticides Action Network (see the action page).
Public interest groups and individuals can blow the whistle on specific dumping activities as well as lobbying their governments to enact and enforce import controls. Consumer Interpol. set up in 1981 under the auspices of the International Organisation of Consumers’ Unions, intends to do just this. With a worldwide network of correspondents it lets member groups know fast what hazards might be on their way, and what action to take. Activists in the West can press companies for:
• access to information about their products. including test results and side-effects, even though this may mean giving away trade secrets.
• labelling on exported goods which is in the local language and carries clear information about use and dangers of the product.
• the withdrawal of unnecessarily’ dangerous chemicals from Third World markets.
Finally, for people who know their company is into the dumping game, we hope they can find the courage to blow the whistle and tell the world.
Motivation to act on dumping may be missing because by and large we benefit from it. We are protected from corporate bad habits by a safety net of controls. And many’ times it is our own corporations which are the culprits, corporations we profit from through our pension funds, our insurance companies and government revenues. Yet although the worst excesses of dumping are seen in the developing countries we should not be too complacent; walk into any garden centre and behold the rows of murderous chemicals with innocent looking labels which we casually buy and spray around the house and garden. And restricted chemicals such as lindane are sprayed on crops in the Third World which come back to us as imports. It’s a circle of poison which embraces us all.
Despite the rhetoric of altruism coming from some corporations we should not forget the reason why they are in business in the first place. George Teeling-Smith. of the UK Office of Health Economics, admitted he would ‘Just be talking rubbish if (he) were to say that the multinational companies were operating in the less developed countries primarily for the welfare of those countries.
They are not bishops; they are businessmen’.
This special report appeared in the dumping - the global trade in dangerous products issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.