Last weekend I watched for the first time the Julia Roberts classic, Erin Brokovich. It’s the beautiful story about of an outspoken, mother-of-three who goes from begging for jobs from her cockroach-infested home to earning millions of dollars by working hard, having a heart and using her brains. Based on a true a story, Erin Brokovich portrays the court case of Hinkley versus Pacific, Gas and Electricity Company (PG&E). In it, residents of a small town who had suffered health problems caused by leakages of a toxic chemical, sued the company for compensation and won a $333million award.
Classic stories like this always go down well because crowds love an underdog and it just seems wrong that because one side is bigger, has more money or more power than the other, that they can just ignore the needs of good, honest people like those of Hinkley no matter how just their claims are.
Although I enjoyed the film there was a niggling thought in the back of my head throughout that this just is not how the story usually goes. Today even more so than ever before, the masses are the underdogs that we just expect to fail, to go ignored or to end up as collateral damage. It’s not only frustrating but illogical too. In Hinkley’s case PG&E have billions of dollars, and are responsible for the damage whilst the people of Hinkley have hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. The answer seems too obvious to even say.
Nothing illustrates this modern day reality better than David Cameron’s unwavering commitment to the proposed cross-Atlantic free trade agreement TTIP. If you have heard about TTIP you are probably bored stiff by article after article pointing out the obvious, and I forgive you for clicking off to a better place. If you haven’t, let me alleviate your confusion. TTIP is essentially a contract being drawn up to by the US and the EU which intends to unite the two entities by breaking down the barriers of trade. Those opposed fear that it could (and probably will) mean adhering to US standards on everything from food production to environmental policy whilst corporations operate with more free reign across the globe. Essentially, it could mean a lot less Erin Brockovichs and a lot more Hinkley resident-type victims.
For a long time we’ve accepted and lived by the ideals that have led us to this point. Capitalism and free trade, the right to make as much money as you can with no governmental interference or red tape in your way, limitless profits and no drawbacks. But unfortunately, in life, there are limits, and we would be foolish to encourage companies in their belief that there aren’t. The logical and normal restrictions on money-making, such as taxes and trade laws, were invented for a reason. Limiting corporate power is a way for governments to protect the citizens they are put in place to represent. Poisoning people to cut costs is wrong, and you should have to pay for it.
TTIP would present less of a problem if Erin’s was the only tale of corporations behaving badly. In reality there are dozens if not hundreds of cases like hers and worse, and they symbolise people lucky enough to have found legal representation for the wrongs they have endured.
The case of Cófan people vs Chevron gives us a glimpse in the kind of justice we can expect when corporate power becomes overwhelming. Chevron Corporation, a company whose revenues in 2013 were up to $220billion have never given a penny of compensation to the tens of thousands of people who have suffered skin diseases, abnormal growths or died from cancer in the Ecuadorian Amazon over the past twenty or so years. These people just so happen to live in and from the rainforest in the exact location that Texaco (later purchased by Chevron) deny dumping billions of gallons of toxic water during the ‘clean up’ of their oil operations. Chevron has been fighting this case for over 20 years and after an Ecuadorian court ruled in favour of the Ecuadorians in 2011, demanding $19billion in reparations, later reduced to $9.5billion, the company simply counter-sued. Legal proceedings are ongoing.
I feel certain that no employee of Chevron relishes in the destruction of the Amazon or the death of its people. Chevron inherited this problem from Texaco and is simply trying to resolve it in a way that best works for the company; why spend billions of dollars on a clean-up when you could spend millions on legal fees. Besides it’s not the role of corporations to look after people, governments do that. But if wealthy governments are handing over power to corporations, who can then reject legitimate claims of entire nation-states, who is looking after the Cófan people and anyone else who gets in the way of profit-making?
Now, not to kill you with Hollywood analogies but if we learnt anything from Spiderman it’s that with great power, comes great responsibility. Ridiculous it may seem that a Spiderman line is the answer to our current global issue of corporate abuses of power but it is. Cases like Chevron-Texaco vs Ecuador indicate the extent to which responsibility can and has been evaded by corporations with enough money to make any moral obligations evaporate. Whether we can expect an expansion of corporate power to result in an expansion of corporate responsibility is yet to be seen, but it seems doubtful when you look at the behaviour of certain companies today.
With the advent of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (or ISDS, currently a clause in the TTIP), an agreement between a company and a country they invest in, which allows them to go to an independent court to resolve issues, we are already seeing a situation in which corporations can and do sue countries for implementing policies which have a negative on their profits, regardless of the effect on their people. Both Australia and Uruguay for example are being sued for its anti-smoking efforts by a tobacco company, while Egypt is being sued by Veolia, Europe’s largest water supplier, for raising the national minimum wage. Whether these cases will end in changes in domestic laws or pay-outs, or be rejected completely is disputable, but that they are even being considered is absurd and blatantly unjust.
Taxes too are an indication of how our corporations feel about law and citizenship. The offshore accounts of all the technology giants you can think of will potentially make your head explode. Apple alone has an impressive estimated $111billion in untaxed accounts outside of the USA, up from $83billion in 2012. That is to say that Apple has, in bank accounts outside of the USA, double what Uruguay possesses as its GDP. In fact, Apple’s offshore cash store, combined with that of Microsoft, Citigroup and the pharmaceutical, Pfizer reach around the GDP of Egypt too. Don’t go forgetting these names now, because these corporations are the global governors of the future.
You may be outraged and want nothing to do with them but you can’t boycott these companies, you cannot boycott the water coming out of your tap, or the drugs prescribed by your doctor and let’s face it, none of us are going to give up the entire Internet; you in fact have very little control over the extent to which you are a consumer of the goods provided by many corporations of this size. However, unless you happen to be a millionaire shareholder of one of these companies, you really don’t have any say in how they run either.
You can understand then, why many regard TTIP as an assault on democracy and why it is being fought against, tooth and nail, by campaigners. However, to me, the assault is on humanity. The Erin Brokovichs of the world encourage us to keep believing in humanity no matter how many fear-mongering tabloids try and convince us there’s no such thing. If we simply accept the idea that it is profits first, people later and cease believing in change, we allow those in control to take us for absolute mugs at every corner.
Erin Brokovich is indeed a heart-warming film; but sadly it’s also one that stuns us. We have now become so accustomed to these daily injustices that we are shocked to learn that one day, somewhere, just was served. I personally find myself constantly echoing my mother’s old mantra that ‘life’s not fair’ and often it isn’t, but that’s not to say that it can’t be or that we should actively implement rules and laws like TTIP, that make it less fair. Sometimes the five-year-old throwing the strop has a point: it’s just not fair.
POSTSCRIPT: TTIP is not yet in place but it requires a lot more attention if it’s to fail getting through parliament. For more information start here.