For many in the United States the jury is still out on whether free trade is a problem given the increasing concerns of the negative consequences. The concepts of corporate accountability and protection for those who live, and often die, by the hands of corporations are beginning to gain traction, even within the U.S. Congress.
The case of Chevron Corporation in the Ecuadorean Amazon is a prime example.30,000 indigenous people living in the Ecuadorean rainforest have succesfully taken Chevron to court which, unto itself is an unprecedented victory, however having a guilty verdict levied against Chevron is not a sure thing. As a Politico article explains, Chevron has gone to great lengths, launching massive public relation and media campaigns to try to portray and defend their side of the story. Along with the PR and media efforts, it has launched a massive lobbying campaign which aims to prevent a ruling on the case. One tactic it has employed on Capitol Hill is lobbying to have U.S. Trade policy, specifically the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences changed in regards to Ecuador. The current system gives Ecuador preferential treatment for its oil exports under the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act. Chevron’s goal is essentially to compel the government of Ecuador to kill the case under pain of losing these preferences.
Two camps have been formed within Congress, with senators and representatives choosing to side either with Chevron or with the indigenous people of Ecuador. One representative championing the side of the people is Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA). On November 17, 2009 Sánchez testified before the Trade Subcommittee hearing on trade preference systems. In her official press release her message was clear: “As we re-examine our preference systems, I urge the Committee to explore options for holding nations accountable for protecting the rights of working families… We should shape preferences programs to promote labor rights and a clean environment...” She went on to say, “Instead of allowing [the Amazon] case to come to a conclusion, embarking on clean-up efforts, or even seeking mediation, Chevron has engaged in a lobbying effort that looks like little more than extortion… if it can’t get the outcome it wants from the Ecuadorian court system, Chevron will use the U.S. government to deny trade benefits…” She concluded her testimony by saying, “Trade preferences should be used as a hand up to provide needed help to the families of developing nations, not a paddle to punish governments who refuse to succumb to the demands of multi-billion dollar corporations.”
This case clearly demonstrates the dangerous line we have allowed corporations to cross in the name of free trade. For years individuals, non-profits, and NGOs have tried to open the public’s eye to these dangers with little success. However, thanks to the backlash against the extreme measures taken by Chevron within the U.S. Congress these issues are beginning to receive the attention and critical eye they deserve, both within the public and private spheres. The Chevron case is throwing into question many practices commonly used by multinational corporations that were previously viewed as “necessary evils” such as disregard for the environment and labor. As Rep. Linda Sánchez stated in her press release, “We must abandon the naïve view that free trade alone is an economic development policy.” We can no longer afford to let corporations regard their land and labor supply as expendable if we want sustainable economic development to take place. The working poor are at the mercy of MNCs, therefore to level the playing field they must be free to protect themselves by forming unions and having a voice in their legal systems. But this alone is not enough, that is why, as articulated by Rep. Sánchez, governments must advocate for working families. One way to do this is to keep their interests’ in mind when creating new trade policies.
The Chevron case is not the only case of corporate abuse and disregard. Many similar cases have been filled by non-profits on behalf of exploited people, often workers. One non-profit that has championed the rights of workers is the International Rights Advocates. They have filled case against many well known brand names such as Coca-Cola, Bridgestone-Firestone, and Nestlé for abuse of their workers. Hopefully these cases, along with the current Chevron case, demonstrate that corporate accountability and advocacy for people will eventually become the norm.You can help advocate for the environment and the rights of people and workers by taking action at these sites:
- Sign the petition calling on Mr. Watson, CEO of Chevron, to do the right thing in Ecuador!
- Send an e-mail to Bridgestone-Firestone asking them to play fair in Liberia!
- Tell Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé to Stop Using Child Labor!