DAVOS, Switzerland - As the world's business and political elite continue their annual meeting in this Swiss alpine resort, civil society representatives have singled out four transnationals as the most socially irresponsible on the planet, and presented them with the Public Eye on Davos Award.
This dubious distinction was bestowed on Dow Chemicals, oil giant Shell, U.S.-based retail chain Wal-Mart, and KPMG International, an accounting and consulting firm. Nestlé was also recognized with the ”people's choice” award.
The ”winning” corporations were chosen as ”model cases for all the corporate groups that have excelled in socially and environmentally irresponsible behavior. They reveal the negative impacts of economic globalization,” said a statement from the Public Eye Awards organizers.
The awards are coordinated by two Swiss non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Pro Natura-Friends of the Earth and the Bern Declaration, and were announced this year for the first time in Davos, to coincide with the World Economic Forum (WEF).
In her opening speech, the British economist Noreena Hertz said: Workers and communities everywhere must be able to safeguard basic rights to minimum health and safety standards at work, to minimum wages, and not be dispossessed without adequate compensation. Multinational corporations must not be allowed to infringe these rights, wherever it is that they operate. Therefore, she argued that legislative reforms are needed as to ensure that parent companies can be held responsible for the actions of their subsidiaries.
The Public Eye on Davos grew out of a public demonstration first organized in 1997 to voice opposition to the WEF and denounce the negative effects of globalization
Initially, the civil society representatives involved attempted to forge a dialogue with the WEF and promote greater transparency and participation by a broader range of actors, but this initiative met with defeat.
Since 2001, the focal point of opposition to the neoliberal globalization project has been the alternative World Social Forum (WSF), held annually as a civil society counterpoint to the Davos meeting. This year's fifth edition is currently under way in Porto Alegre, the birthplace of the WSF.
The Public Eye on Davos organizers noted that the WEF attempts to portray itself as a defender of human rights and the environment, while in fact, it defends above all else the economic interests of its members, the 1,000 most powerful companies on the planet.
The Public Eye Award given to Shell -- which announced it would be unable to send a spokesperson pick up the corresponding statuette -- will be taken to Nigeria by local activist Goodwin Oyo for a touring exhibit, visiting the communities affected by the company's oil drilling activities in that African nation.
Oyo said this week in Davos that for almost 50 years, Shell has been spilling oil and burning gas in the Niger River delta, with devastating consequences for the local population and the environment.
The Nigerian activist told IPS that in order to stop these abuses, transnationals should be prohibited from operating in developing nations, which should have sovereignty and control over their own natural resources.
The Public Eye jury selected Shell for the environmental irresponsibility prize for failing to clean up oil spills and reneging on its promise to stop the stop the flaring of excess gas in its Nigeria delta fields.
The award for failing to respect human rights went to Dow Chemicals for refusing to assume accountability for the persistent, long-term effects of the chemical spill at one of its factories in Bhopal, India on Dec. 3, 1984, considered the worst industrial disaster in world history.
The factory, owned by Union Carbide -- which was purchased by Dow Chemicals in 2001 -- leaked massive amounts of toxic gases over the city. Some 8,000 people living nearby died during the first few days after the incident, although the death toll eventually rose to 20,000.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has demanded that Dow assume responsibility for the consequences of the spill and release the medical reports on the toxicity of the leaked gases.
Wal-Mart took the ”worker's rights” prize on the basis of the intolerable working conditions in the Asian and African factories that produce clothing sold by the retail giant.
The U.S.-based company refuses to accept responsibility for the dismal conditions suffered by workers for Wal-Mart suppliers in countries like Lesotho, Kenya and Thailand, the award organizers said.
KPMG International, which operates in 148 countries, was singled out for promoting ”aggressive tax avoidance” amongst its corporate clients.
For its part, Nestlé earned a negative award for its practice of marketing baby food and formula in the developing world by encouraging women to use their products instead of nursing their children.
According to Pro Natura's Sonja Ribi, an estimated 1.5 million children die every year because they are not fed with their mothers' breast milk.
Ribi also pointed to Nestlé's labor practices in Colombia, where the transnational fired the entire staff at one of its factories and then immediately replaced them with new workers at lower wages.
The Bern Declaration and Pro Natura are calling for binding international legislation to monitor corporate responsibility.
According to Ribi, the Global Pact, a U.N. initiative urging business leaders to voluntarily bring their corporate practices and policies into line with basic principles of human rights, international labor laws and environmental standards, and other similar actions is insufficient, because the pact lacks enforcement mechanisms.
© Copyright 2005 AFP