‘To inform on or against, tell on, betray, blab, squeal, grass, sell out, rat, nark, put the Finger on’... the list goes on. Consult the thesaurus and you find a great array of words for the making public of private information. Without exception they ring with disapproval. The only word to describe the action in positive terms is a recent, trans-Atlantic import: whistleblowing.
Vocabulary can be a sensitive barometer of values. And the weight of precedent and social mores lies with loyalty - immediate loyalty to employer and colleagues even at the expense of the greater loyalty to humanity.
A recent survey of young Japanese businessmen found 63 per cent prepared to place the interests of their company above those of society: more than half were prepared to ‘do something unjust or antisocial’ if ordered to by their employers. Such blind obedience is not just a Japanese characteristic. Consider:
. The British oil companies who for twelve years illegally supplied the Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia against British and UN sanctions. The oil was critical to the regime’s survival. Oil company policy was directly responsible for the huge waste of British taxpayers’ money on a forlorn policing policy with the Royal Navy blockading Beira port. Indirectly the oil supplies permitted the deaths of tens of thousands of black and white Zimbabweans in the liberation struggle. YET NO EMPLOYEE OF THE OIL COMPANIES BLEW THE WHISTLE.
. In a more relevant dumping case, British Leyland suppressed what one judge described in July 1978 as ‘mounting and horrifying’ evidence of wheels falling off new Allegro cars before they were recalled. As the judge put it:
‘They knew the facts. They saw to it that no one else did.’ How many crashes and motorway mutilations could have been saved by courageous whistle-blowing?
Of course it’s understandable that no-one wants to raise the issue in our companies. The risks are high, the reward in heaven.
Criticizing or questioning dumping policies within a firm can mean being labelled a ‘troublemaker’. Of course the higher the managerial position, the greater the knowledge of socially irresponsible behaviour. And curiously, the more you have, the greater the sanctions on you: loss of job without pension or reference for a middeaged senior executive is a far greater blow than for a young fire-brand on the shopfloor. Reprisals need not just affect the career. Attempts at discrediting the whistleblower can mean anything from throwing doubt on the value of their work to sexual innuendos and red smears. In the Third World whistleblowers can even be the victims of contract killers.
In the equation on the other side is the knowledge of the possible deaths, maiming or straightforward exploitation of the poor, in whose desperate circumstances, but for providence, we could have been.
The answer has to be, wherever possible, to raise the matter internally. Dumping is extraordinary shortsighted and inhuman behaviour. Only if there is no company movement should the concerned employee look for outside publicity.
‘Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases, Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman’ - Mr Justice Brandeis, the US Supreme Court.
Nevertheless trying to attract publicity can be an uphill struggle. In much of the Third World and all the Soviet bloc the media’s role is confined to toadying and posturing before the regime in power. Embarrassing the powerful is not in its brief. Even the Western press, radio and television are muzzled in many countries by anachronistic censorship legislation, like the Official Secrets Act in Britain or the extraordinarily tight libel legislation in Australia. This cuts down but doesn’t stop the policing function of the media. The New Internationalist is one of a number of publications prepared to put public safety and freedom from exploitation before a quiet and safe editorial life.
If you think your company is involved in any aspect of dumping, consult the check list alongside, and think about whistle-blowing. Write to us, with photostat copies of company documents if possible. We’ll keep your name totally confidential, or you can even write anonymously.
This article draws heavily on ‘Conscientious Objectors at work' Mental