To be on this list, not only do you have to be a corporate villain, the actions of the corporation have to be really bad, in some cases criminal, others are labor abuses, workplace safety violators and many fall into the category of not having one shred of human decency. These corporate scoundrels will do anything to have a large bottom line, no sacrifice is too low, even at the expense of human lives.
AIG: Money for Nothing
There’s surely no one party responsible for the ongoing global financial crisis. But if you had to pick a single responsible corporation, there’s a very strong case to make for American International Group (AIG).
Why did AIG – primarily an insurance company powerhouse, with more than 100,000 employees around the world and $1 trillion in assets – require more than $100 billion ($100 billion!) in government funds? The company’s traditional insurance business continues to go strong, but its gigantic exposure to the world of “credit default swaps” left it teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Government officials then intervened, because they feared that an AIG bankruptcy would crash the world’s financial system.
AIG’s eventual problem was rooted in its entering a very risky business but treating it as safe. First, AIG Financial Products, the small London-based unit handling credit default swaps, decided to insure “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs). CDOs are pools of mortgage loans, but often only a portion of the underlying loans – perhaps involving the most risky part of each loan. Ratings agencies graded many of these CDOs as highest quality, though subsequent events would show these ratings to have been profoundly flawed. Based on the blue-chip ratings, AIG treated its insurance on the CDOs as low risk. Then, because AIG was highly rated, it did not have to post collateral.
Through credit default swaps, AIG was basically collecting insurance premiums and assuming it would never pay out on a failure – let alone a collapse of the entire market it was insuring. It was a scheme that couldn’t be beat: money for nothing.
After the bailout, it emerged that AIG did not even know all of the CDOs it had ensured.
The world’s food system is broken. Or, more accurately, the giant food companies and their allies in the U.S. and other rich country governments, and at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, broke it.
Over the last three decades, the system was completely abandoned, in country after country. It was replaced by a multinational-dominated, globally integrated food system, in which the World Bank and other institutions coerced countries into opening their markets to cheap food imports from rich countries and re-orienting their agricultural systems to grow food for rich consumers abroad. Proponents said the new system was a “free market” approach, but in reality it traded one set of government interventions for another – a new set of rules that gave enhanced power to a handful of global grain trading companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, as well as to seed and fertilizer corporations.
The decline of developing country agriculture means that developing countries are dependent on the vagaries of the global market. When prices spike – as they did in late 2007 and through the beginning of 2008 – countries and poor consumers are at the mercy of the global market and the giant trading companies that dominate it. In the first quarter of 2008, the price of rice in Asia doubled, and commodity prices overall rose 40 percent. People in rich countries felt this pinch, but the problem was much more severe in the developing world. Not only do consumers in poor countries have less money, they spend a much higher proportion of their household budget on food – often half or more – and they buy much less processed food, so commodity increases affect them much more directly. In poor countries, higher prices don’t just pinch, they mean people go hungry. Food riots broke out around the world in early 2008.
But not everyone was feeling pain. For Cargill, spiking prices was an opportunity to get rich. In the second quarter of 2008, the company reported profits of more than $1 billion, with profits from continuing operations soaring 18 percent from the previous year. Cargill’s 2007 profits totaled more than $2.3 billion, up more than a third from 2006.
Cargill exploited the volatile grain and food prices to make an unprecedented fortune while people were starving.
Chevron: “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies”
The world has witnessed a stunning consolidation of the multinational oil companies over the last decade.
One of the big winners was Chevron. It swallowed up Texaco and Unocal, among others. It was happy to absorb their revenue streams. It has been less willing to take responsibility for ecological and human rights abuses perpetrated by these companies.
One of the inherited legacies from Chevron’s 2001 acquisition of Texaco is litigation in Ecuador over the company’s alleged decimation of the Ecuadorian Amazon over a 20-year period of operation. In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit in U.S. courts, alleging that Texaco had poisoned the land where they live and the waterways on which they rely, allowing billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits unlined and uncovered. They sought billions in compensation for the harm to their land and livelihood, and for alleged health harms. The Ecuadorians and their lawyers filed the case in U.S. courts because U.S. courts have more capacity to handle complex litigation, and procedures (including jury trials) that offer plaintiffs a better chance to challenge big corporations. Texaco, and later Chevron, deployed massive legal resources to defeat the lawsuit. Ultimately, a Chevron legal maneuver prevailed: At Chevron’s instigation, U.S. courts held that the case should be litigated in Ecuador, closer to where the alleged harms occurred.
Having argued vociferously that Ecuadorian courts were fair and impartial, Chevron is now unhappy with how the litigation has proceeded in that country. So unhappy, in fact, that it is lobbying the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government does not make the case go away.
“We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this – companies that have made big investments around the world,” a Chevron lobbyist said to Newsweek in August. (Chevron subsequently stated that “the comments attributed to an unnamed lobbyist working for Chevron do not reflect our company’s views regarding the Ecuador case. They were not approved by the company and will not be tolerated.”)
Constellation Energy: Nuclear Operators
Although it is too dangerous, too expensive and too centralized to make sense as an energy source, nuclear power won’t go away, thanks to equipment makers and utilities that find ways to make the public pay and pay.
Case in point: Constellation Energy Group, the operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland. When Maryland deregulated its electricity market in 1999, Constellation – like other energy generators in other states – was able to cut a deal to recover its “stranded costs” and nuclear decommissioning fees. The idea was that competition would bring multiple suppliers into the market, and these new competitors would have an unfair advantage over old-time monopoly suppliers. Those former monopolists, the argument went, had built expensive nuclear reactors with the approval of state regulators, and it would be unfair if they could not charge consumers to recover their costs. It would also be unfair, according to this line of reasoning, if the former monopolists were unable to recover the costs of decommissioning nuclear facilities.
Building nuclear plants is extraordinarily expensive (Constellation’s planned construction is estimated at $9.6 billion) and takes a long time; construction plans face massive political risks; and the value of electric utilities is small relative to the huge costs of nuclear construction. For banks and investors, this amounts to too much uncertainty – but if the government guarantees loans will be paid back, then there’s no risk.
Or, stated better, the risk is absorbed entirely by the public. That’s the financial risk. The nuclear safety risk is always absorbed, involuntarily, by the public.
CNPC: Fueling Violence in Darfur
Many of the world’s most brutal regimes have a common characteristic: Although subject to economic sanctions and politically isolated, they are able to maintain power thanks to multinational oil company enablers. Case in point: Sudan, and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
In July, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo charged the President of Sudan, Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, with committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The charges claim that Al Bashir is the mastermind of crimes against ethnic groups in Darfur, aimed at removing the black population from Sudan. Sudanese armed forces and government-authorized militias known as the Janjaweed have carried out massive attacks against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities of Darfur, according to the ICC allegations. Following bombing raids, “ground forces would then enter the village or town and attack civilian inhabitants. They kill men, children, elderly, women; they subject women and girls to massive rapes. They burn and loot the villages.” The ICC says 35,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced.
There are other nefarious components of the CNPC relationship with the Sudanese government. China ships substantial amounts of small arms to Sudan and has helped Sudan build its own small arms factories. China has also worked at the United Nations to undermine more effective multilateral action to protect Darfur. Human rights organizations charge a key Chinese motivation is to lubricate its relationship with the Khartoum government so the oil continues to flow.
Dole: The Sour Taste of Pineapple
Starting in 1988, the Philippines undertook what was to be a bold initiative to redress the historically high concentration of land ownership that has impoverished millions of rural Filipinos and undermined the country’s development. The Comprehensive Agricultural Reform Program (CARP) promised to deliver land to the landless.
It didn’t work out that way.Plantation owners helped draft the law and invented ways to circumvent its purported purpose. Dole pineapple workers are among those paying the price.
“Through its dealings with these cooperatives,” ILRF found, Dole and Del Monte, (the world’s other leading pineapple grower) “have been able to take advantage of a number of worker abuses. Dole has outsourced its labor force to contract labor and replaced its full-time regular employment system that existed before CARP.” Dole employs 12,000 contract workers. Meanwhile, from 1989 to 1998, Dole reduced its regular workforce by 3,500.
Concludes Bama Atheya, executive director of ILRF, “In both Costa Rica and the Philippines, Dole has deliberately obstructed workers’ right to organize, has failed to pay a living wage and has polluted workers’ communities.”
GE: Creative Accounting
General Electric (GE) has appeared on Multinational Monitor’s annual 10 Worst Corporations list for defense contractor fraud, labor rights abuses, toxic and radioactive pollution, manufacturing nuclear weaponry, workplace safety violations and media conflicts of interest (GE owns television network NBC).
This year, the company returns to the list for new reasons: alleged tax cheating and the firing of a whistleblower.
In June, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reported on internal GE documents that appeared to show the company had engaged in long-running effort to evade taxes in Brazil. In a lengthy report in Tax Notes International, Johnston cited a GE subsidiary manager’s powerpoint presentation that showed “suspicious” invoices as “an indication of possible tax evasion.” The invoices showed suspiciously high sales volume for lighting equipment in lightly populated Amazon regions of the country. These sales would avoid higher value added taxes (VAT) in urban states, where sales would be expected to be greater.
Imperial Sugar: 13 Dead
On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah. Tony Holmes, a forklift operator at the plant, was in the break room when the blast occurred.
“I heard the explosion,” he told the Savannah Morning News. “The building shook, and the lights went out. I thought the roof was falling in. … I saw people running. I saw some horrific injuries. … People had clothes burning. Their skin was hanging off. Some were bleeding.”
Days later, when the fire was finally extinguished and search-and-rescue operations completed, the horrible human toll was finally known: 13 dead, dozens badly burned and injured.
As with almost every industrial disaster, it turns out the tragedy was preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which like other forms of dust, is highly combustible.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government workplace safety regulator, had not visited Imperial Sugar’s Port Wentworth facility since 2000. When inspectors examined the blast site after the fact, they found rampant violations of the agency’s already inadequate standards. They proposed a more than $5 million fine, and issuance of citations for 61 egregious willful violations, eight willful violations and 51 serious violations. Under OSHA’s rules, a “serious” citation is issued when death or serious physical harm is likely to occur, a “willful” violation is a violation committed with plain indifference to employee safety and health, and “egregious” citations are issued for particularly flagrant violations.
Philip Morris International: Unshackled
The old Philip Morris no longer exists. In March, the company formally divided itself into two separate entities: Philip Morris USA, which remains a part of the parent company Altria, and Philip Morris International.
Philip Morris USA sells Marlboro and other cigarettes in the United States. Philip Morris International tramples over the rest of the world. The world is just starting to come to grips with a Philip Morris International even more predatory in pushing its toxic products worldwide.
The new Philip Morris International is unconstrained by public opinion in the United States – the home country and largest market of the old, unified Philip Morris -and will no longer fear lawsuits in the United States.
One of the great industry deceptions over the last several decades is selling cigarettes called “lights” (as in Marlboro Lights), “low” or “mild” – all designed to deceive smokers into thinking they are safer.
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control says these inherently misleading terms should be barred. Like other companies in this regard, Philip Morris has been moving to replace the names with color coding – aiming to convey the same ideas, without the now-controversial terms.
Roche: Saving Lives is Not Our Business
Monopoly control over life-saving medicines gives enormous power to drug companies. And, to paraphrase Lord Acton, enormous power corrupts enormously.
The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon is the first of a new class of AIDS drugs, working through a novel mechanism. It is primarily used as a “salvage” therapy – a treatment for people for whom other therapies no longer work. Fuzeon brought in $266 million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining.
Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon. It does not offer a discount price for developing countries.
Like most industrialized countries, Korea maintains a form of price controls – the national health insurance program sets prices for medicines. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs listed Fuzeon at $18,000 a year. Korea’s per capita income is roughly half that of the United States. Instead of providing Fuzeon, for a profit, at Korea’s listed level, Roche refuses to make the drug available in Korea.
The head of Roche Korea was reportedly less diplomatic. According to Korean activists, he told them, “We are not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not our business.”
Robert Weissman did an outstanding job compiling this extensive list of miscreants. For the full unedited list of all the misdeeds, here is the link.