Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Corporation

I saw the documentary ‘Corporation’ over the weekend and I thought that the documentary raises some serious concerns. At the outset I want to say that this article is not so much of a review of the documentary as it is a discussion of some of the topics covered in the documentary. I would also appreciate your input on the issues.

When I popped in the Corporation DVD, I anticipated a documentary on the perils of a capitalistic society (which it was). Even though the documentary has an air of anti-capitalistic agenda I found that the concerns in the documentary are very real and should be given a lot more attention than currently given by the mainstream media. The documentary shows how every individual (be it as a customer, employee or investor) is a part of the problem and could be a part of the solution.

As a consumer I thought I was pretty savvy until I watched the documentary. I discovered that a lot of information is withheld from the customers. I was especially alarmed about the rbST (artificially introduced growth hormone) in the milk issue. I will be discussing the rbST issue in depth in the next post.

[Do check your milk cartons for rbST content. If there is no mention of rbST on the carton then there is a strong possibility that the milk you are drinking contains rbST. Milk that does not contain rbST explicitly says so. However the presence of rbST is NOT mentioned on cartons of milk that contain rbST. The potential risks of consuming milks from cows that are treated with growth hormones are not clearly understood. So if you don’t want to consume milk with rbST, start buying all natural or organic milk.]

Although the discussion in this article relates to America, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to state that these issues are relevant to every country. After watching the documentary I realized that I had grossly underestimated the extent of exploitation by large corporations.

Profits over people - Exploitation of employees
We know that giant corporations exist and that they are willing to cut corners to maximize their profits. Wal-mart is an exemplary example of that. I know many people who boycott shopping at Wal-mart altogether. But even if you don’t shop at Wal-mart, no matter which giant retailer you choose, you are still supporting some sleazy corporation which is violating human rights. Everybody has heard about Nike outsourcing jobs to sweatshops in countries like China to get cheap labor. What I didn’t know was that all the other major shoe retailers like Reebok and Adidas also do the same. So unless you exclusively buy shoes from (expensive) stores like Beyond Skin or limit your purchase to the few domestically made lines of shoes from companies such as Converse, you are supporting the overseas exploitation in sweat shops. Same goes for clothes. If you have a pair of jeans from Levis or a shirt from GAP in your closet, you have bought a garment made in some sweatshop overseas. In fact there is a strong possibility that all your clothes were made in some sweatshop, unless the garment has a union label or you only buy clothes from fair trade organizations or employee owned businesses.

The pro-sweat shop argument
The companies that employ cheap labor claim that the people who work in the sweatshops would’ve been unemployed and even starved to death without their business. So in essence, the businesses are doing the sweatshop workers a big favor. In reality the wages are starkly low. The businesses can afford to pay higher wages. The profit margins are absurdly high. The laborers work inhuman amount of hours to make enough money so that they can sustain themselves. Of course if the workers demand better wages, the businesses wouldn’t think twice about taking their business elsewhere.

Exploitation of consumers
The exploitation does not stop at getting cheap labor. The corporations don’t care about the well being of the customers either. Important product information (such as the presence of rbST in milk) is withheld from the customers in the interest of product sales. Here is a clip of Erin Burnett from MSNBC who justifies the sale of low quality (to the point of being hazardous) products. She thinks it is okay to sell children’s toys with lead paint or toxic food-products because it keeps prices low.
Environmental hazards
Our increasing dependence on modern commodities has fueled a lifestyle that results in detrimental pollution of our environment. It is the price we pay for progress. I regard people who enjoy the comforts and advancements of a capitalist society as hypocrites when they talk about the evils of capitalism without altering their lifestyles. It is silly to try and impede progress. Capitalism is not a bad idea, it needs some tweaking not abandoning. The better strategy is to find solutions to reduce/regulate the toxic waste generation. There are several green earth organizations working towards these goals. Hence my belief was that the best solution was to create awareness about nature conservation and designing protocols for environmentally friendly practices would slowly steer us towards an eco-friendly environment.

Turns out the availability of green alternatives or lack of awareness is not even a main issue with corporations. It is all about money. Big corporations are so ruthless about making profits that they make a risk-benefit assessment for getting caught dumping poisons in the environment in terms of the fines they have to pay. They’d rather take the risk of getting caught and paying fines instead of investing in better practices for sewage disposal. So to control illegal dumping of toxic wastes, we have to find better solutions. Since, the only thing that these corporations care about is money; in my opinion the monetary fines should be raised to a point that the corporations seriously rethink their strategy of dealing with wastes.

What can we do?
As customers we can make many choices to work against bad practices that harm people and environment. It is not going to be easy to make the necessary changes because (a) it requires extra effort and (b) the alternative lifestyle can be expensive. But realizing that the alternative lifestyle is not so much of a choice as it is a necessity should help foster the necessary changes.

The first step to make these changes is to learn and research these issues. I did my own research and discovered some websites that offer information and solutions on some of the issues I discussed.
1) Fair Trade Federation This organization stipulates better environment and income for workers and artisans to bypass the exploitative work conditions in sweatshops. The website also states that the FTF marked products don’t cost more than the amount you pay the major retailers. How? The organization works directly with the producers to cut out the middlemen.
2) Sweat shop watch
3) Earth 911

If you have additional tips or quips about the issues at hand I would love to hear about them.

12 comments:

Nobody said...

see below 2 links for more hitech scams

http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Getting-10-ATT-DSL-Still-a-Pain-86780

http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/2007/pulpit_20070810_002683.html

Drunken Master said...

The scariest part of the documentary for me was that a Corporation is treated as a person, an entity or a being for tax and legal purposes (if I remember correctly), not as it should be - as a damn corporation.

This allows the corporation to hold civil and fundamental rights using which they could (and do) exploit their employees.

The milk example too was downright bonechilling.

The problem is that the corporation is now so rooted in our society that there really is no way out if anyone wants to survive in this day and age.

Patrix said...

Haven't seen this one but recently saw another documentary Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man. It is an excellent potrayal of a man devoted to consumer rights and his struggle within the constantly changing political climate You would like it.

Rebecca said...

I haven's seen this movie yet, but I did watch a documentary done about Wal-Mart a couple years back - and yes, I'm one of those people who boycotts Wal-mart.

The despicable thing about walmart is that walmart actually puts the same people out of business that are forced to shop there. They force companies to provide them with goods at such a low price, so they can in turn "pass on the savings" to the lower-middle and lower class, that the companies are forced to outsource manufacturing to China just so they can afford to sell to walmart. And they HAVE to sell to walmart. They did this to Rubbermaid. But I digress, I just love to rant about walmart!

I'll have to check out this movie, even though I can't afford to buy organic milk!

Crystal blur said...

Nobody,
Don’t even get me started about the scams by telephone and cable companies. I’ve had the worst customer service conversations with AOL.

Drunken master,
I was also appalled to find out that corporations are legally treated as a person. It is true that corporations have disproportionate amounts of power. But I am not prepared to cave in just yet. Like they say, “If you aren’t a part of the solution you are a part of the precipitate…er problem”.

Patrix,
That’s a great suggestion. I will check it out for sure. Thanks.

Becky,
I agree with you about Wal-mart…it is despicable. But currently picking an alternative to Wal-mart is like choosing the lesser of two evils. I guess shopping at employee owned franchises and pro-actively choosing earth-friendly options is the best solution for now. With a grad student salary it is hard to live an alternative life-style. But with milk for example, even if you don’t buy organic milk (which is pretty expensive), you can opt for other options like Publix milk which is not expensive but is rbST free. From what I have read so far, it looks like rbST milk bulk sales were mainly made in Florida and not so much in other states.

Drunken Master said...

I cannot believe I smirked at that chem-geek joke...

And in reply to your "not prepared to cave in..." line, I quote from LOTR-ROTK:

"Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?"
"There never was much hope. Just a fool's hope."

Sorry, couldn't resist.

maalvani mulgo said...

I think Reliance India is known to pull "evil" (if you like) tricks in the indian market.
They'll sell their goods for a loss till smaller competition runs out of business, and once they've got monopoly, they hike up the price.

http://www.rediff.com/money/2007/sep/01guest1.htm

Dhirubhai ka sapnaa... sabkaa maal Apnaa !!

K said...

In 80s, a scientist tried to link ozone-hole at Antarqtica with CFC released by refrigeration gadgets.
What did dupont, a refrigeration major did? It launched a PR war to discredit the linkage.
At the same time, the company was trying hard to find cheaper alternative to CFC. It knew that CFC indeed zaps ozone, but the alternative was costlier.
Moment it found the cheaper alternative, it went to the town with the "new technology that is ozone-friendly." CFC was duely acknowledged as ozone killer.

Mumbai Monsoon said...

The statement or even the feeling that corporations are "evil" is exaggerated. To attribute sweat shops and bad working conditions to manipulative executives who are out to simply maximize their profits is an inaccurate view. Look, there is a certain concept of economics that is at work here, that will cause events to unfold a certain way. Now, you claim that Nike and Reebok are at fault for employing children to work under inhuman conditions in sweat shops. But thats not true. Nike simply wants cheap shoes to beat competition as do its competitors, and in the developed world, the only way to really make anything cheap is to buy components from China. It is no surprise that almost everything in the world comes with a "Made in China" label on it. The average American or for that matter any consumer in the world, will not allow Nike the option of choosing Non-Chinese suppliers. Unless China really decides to do something about its human-right conditions, it is impossible for anyone else to really make that happen. And of all governments the US will be the last to threaten China because of the complex economic and supply chain ties that link them together in an increasingly globalized world.

The only way to improve the condition of those children/workers, is for the Chinese government to actually address the root cause of those problems; Equitable distribution of opportunities for growth, universal education, minimum wage etc. So I don't think boycotting Walmart will help.

I greatly appreciate all the comments above, because it shows how passionate people are about human rights and working conditions. But please try and research feasible ways to actually effect change. Perhaps a start would be by convincing your senator to understand that this is a key issue that his electorates are passionate about.

Awareness is the first step, but it is important to address the cause of an issue and not attack the symptom. You cannot prevent malnutrition by banning hunger. I hope my remarks were not taken in the wrong light. I am a supporter of the same cause, but I have a slightly different approach towards it.

Oka the irrepressible said...

Crys, I absolutely loved your Mahabharata series. My friend and I are laughing like crazy over it completely ignoring an impending client deadline. We're gonna be so dead tomorrow.

Do you have an orkut or facebook profile? I really want to get to know you.

Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

I'm not sure why are you are so worked up about rBST. There is no definite proof that its harmful. This fuss only reminds me of the more famous brouhaha about monosodium glutamate (MSG), when there was never any real proof about a connection between MSG consumption and Alzheimer's.

On another note, you are from India. We don't even begin to list the contents in our products! Yet, we've happily grown up eating food that contains god-knows-what without any regrets. I'm not trying to justify ignorance. I'm merely trying to highlight that in the US, there's a growing tendency to the opposite extreme. Every individual wants to know the contents on every product. And the first thing anyone does when they pick up a product at the grocery store is to look at the ingredients and nutrition table. However, very few are actually aware of what are the real effects of those ingredients or what amount of what nutrient is actually harmful based on their lifestyle. It is precisely so that they can rest their anxious minds that there are such associations as the FDA, and some amount of faith in them is essential if they are to escape from the kind of widespread paranoia I see here today. Please beware.

As for corporations, it is all very simple. A capitalist economy functions on the profit motive. I mean, it is not so much that corporations are greedy, as it is that corporations have to be greedy. (If you are interested in a short but brilliant introduction to some very innovative alternate forms of governance, please read 'Proposed roads to freedom' by Bertrand Russell)So, there's two ways to make profits - 1) Minimize costs 2) Maximize sales. A natural consequence of rule 1 is sweat shops. But what might interest you is that the pro-sweat shop argument is put forth by the sweat shop employees themselves. Though the wages might be low by the norms of a developed country, it is much better than what the workers would've had if these companies didn't exist. So none of the sweat shop employees would really be cribbing. People for humanitarian rights etc: might crib but mostly, the employees are quietly happy. Fair Trade Federation is an interesting concept. I shall look more into it. Thanks.

As for the whole enviromental pollution issue, that is a natural consequence of rule 2, or the maximise sales rule. In this case, it is actually the consumers who are more to blame than the producers. Development has become equivalent to greater consumerism, implying greater wastage. It is the use-and-throw lifestyle that is the founding stone of capitalist growth. At our end, we buy and dipose(say) clothes by the tonnes(thus polluting the environment of course with all those dyes). Then the capitalists are thrilled, and they show us a 100 more varieties of clothes(of course implying all the toxic waste that might be generated in the process of preparing those dyes) and accordingly show advertisements where the whole community is only wearing such clothes so that you feel like a scum bag if you wear anything else. So now you go buy those 100 clothes and soon they come up with a 1000 different ones and so on....

Unfortunately, this vicious circle can't be stemmed very easily. And no, its not just human greed you see. Its the way the capitalist economy is structured. If people suddenly stop buying 1000 clothes every month, then there's an excess of inventory in all the big corporations, so they cut down the costs to try and force you to buy 1000 clothes a month. But if one coporation cuts down the prices, then the others will lose sales and have to close down. So now there's a downward trend in prices, simply because there is an overproduction. And they keep cutting down the prices till they are running the companies at a loss, and then they file for bankruptcy and eventually you'll have a depression! :)(Of course, I'm giving the WORST case scenario. But that is merely to show you what a fine and one-way balance has been struck!) So you see, it is sort of a one way route to hell actually. Let me know if there's flawed logic. Thanks!

Don't take offence at my questioning your stands. After all, what is an opinion worth if there isn't a counter-opinion? :)

PRAMOD KAMATH said...

Are documentaries enough to prove what they are saying? Is a journalist on TV showing you some edited images, saying some prose telling the real truth?
These things do one thing and that is make you aware of situations. But it is up to us to ask the right questions and find whether what they are saying is true.

For eg: the so called sweat shops...well what do they pay. Lets say in India about 100rupees a day. thats abuot 2.5USD. So many in USA will be apalled at this. Is that all they make? But what they dont realise is that the 100rupees in India can easily buy you three decent meals in a small restaurant. And if you cook at home it much more cheaper. But in USA 2.5$wont buy you one proper burger in McDonalds probably. Still it is defenitely less than a decent living when you are only earning 100rupees.

It is the job of capitalism to find the cheapest places to manufacture and the costliest places to sell.This keeps the economy efficient. There are no unnecessary wastage in terms of energy and resources. It is the job of socialism to see that in this process money is not accumalated in few peoples hand. Once again the equity market of capitalism can help distribute this wealth. And the socialistic goals of the governments can focus on educating people in schools and college to grow to a level where they understand this process.

But unfortunately there is always information asymmetry in the world which is why there are some smart some dumb some rich some poor. You cannot make this go away.

Corporations can be evil and they can be good. Because ultimately it is people who own them and run them and people can be good and evil.

But my sincere request is that one should not bias one's views on a 60minute documentary. They are just like the stories crystal has written. They show only one side. Mahabharat looks different when Vedvyas wrote it and now it is different when crystal rewrote it. Even though the essential plot remains the same the perspective had changed the looking glass is coloured differently and thus the message that comes out are different.

Again there was a mention how astrology is a superstition. Really have anyone of us made a statistical analysis of this. There is the sunday paper zodiac column and there is an astrology based on astronomy that considers the movement of the planets/sun/moon with repect to some constellations. The astronomy used in this is considerably advanced and predicts the planetary movements to a very high accuracy in minutes. To say it is hocus-pocus is easy but to prove it wrong one has to do an extensive analysis on a large sample. If anyone has this proof I would be very obliged if you could give me a lead.

Pleas dont allow the audio-visual media to cloud your judgement. Question it cos they are not always right. But they are defenite eye openers! Kudos to them.