Criminal corporations—still a bumper crop.

It seems that death, taxes, and criminal corporations are three things you can count on. Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman released another of their annual top 10 criminal corporations lists this year covering just some of the 2004 lot.

It appears that Coca-Cola is killing, abducting, and torturing workers and their families in the Colombian bottling plant for threatening to organize. Unethical behavior is not new to Coca-Cola: they did business in Germany during World War II. As Coca-Cola sold the famous red-labeled sodas in the US with the then-familiar advertising featuring the patriotic image of a soldier enjoying a refreshing beverage, Coca-Cola made money overseas with Fanta. The syrup to make Coca-Cola was difficult to transport to Germany and the ingredients to make the syrup locally weren’t available. Enter Max Keith, who headed up the successful German Coca-Cola bottling plant. Keith invented a way to make a new beverage from the byproducts of locally-made goods including whey from cheese. Fanta was born. Fanta provided Coca-Cola with money during a time when doing business with Germany would have been considered a huge PR disaster. But most American Coca-Cola drinkers had no idea that the corporation leveraging patriotism at home was also profiting from doing business with a country the US was fighting abroad.

It’s not surprising to learn that multinational corporations don’t mind repressive regimes because repressive regimes drive down the price of labor.

  • IBM‘s early computer business focused on selling Hollerith cards (punchcards) and custom-programming services for their card-sorting computers to the Nazis through IBM’s German subsidiary Dehomag. In the hands of the Third Reich, these machines were used to efficiently process data concerning Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other “undesirables” captured by the Nazis. The goal was to learn which individuals were good for work or better off dead in the eyes of the Nazis. The bluntness of how the cards are arranged and the results gained from processing the cards really are that stark. You can read “IBM and the Holocaust” by Edwin Black for details about this; even if you believe that the Holocaust would have been possible without these early computers, there’s no denying that the machinery and related services made the job of killing much easier. See “The Corporation” for a summary of Black’s work on this subject and be sure to watch for a still of Thomas J. Watson, Sr. and Adolf Hitler at the same table while the voiceover of an IBM representative explains how Watson allegedly never knew Hitler. IBM says that they didn’t control Dehomag starting from the beginning of WWII (the Nazis took over Dehomag in 1939). However, Watson knew what was going on, he profited from the venture, and he was indifferent to the Holocaust victim’s suffering he had helped to expedite.
  • Volkswagen employed about 7,000 Holocaust victims as slave laborers between 1941 and 1945. These workers made mines, V-1 missiles, and anti-tank rocket launchers. As the BBC reported in February 1999, “many of the workers died in the appalling conditions in hidden military complexes.“. Only recently did Volkswagen admit this and pay some former Holocaust slave laborers an undisclosed amount. Volkswagen says they will participate in a Holocaust slave laborer fund, but they and the other companies participating in the fund want the lawsuits against them to be dropped in exchange for their participation. This behavior may not rise to the level of criminal offense today, but it does make one think about how many other businesses got to where they are by leveraging slave labor. I co-own a 2001 Volkswagen GTI 1.8L Turbo 2-door. In other areas of my life, I take pains to try and do the right thing. Apparently I did not succeed here: If I knew then what I know now, I would like to believe that I would not have agreed to purchase this car. There are plenty of other cars to choose from, many made by organizations without a history of building value on slave labor.

    Update [2005-01-29]: Ironically, Volkswagen claims to be upset about the bomber ad where a man wearing a bomb drives a Volkswagen car up to an outdoor café and blows himself up from inside the car. The explosion shakes the car slightly but never goes outside the car, thus nobody else is hurt. The closing frames of the ad show the Volkswagen logo and that the car is “small but tough”. Volkswagen, predictably, would like to distance themselves from the ad, but is it really so hard to believe that a company that would leverage slave labor would employ ads (even so-called “viral” marketing campaigns where ads are passed from person to person) depicting this?

At home and abroad, the US promotes anti-worker policy to maintain an impoverished working force:

  • Wal-Mart benefits from the underpaid laborers they employ in the US and the underpaid laborers abroad who make the products sold by the local floor employees. Wal-Mart is currently losing a number of the class action lawsuits against them which allege worker mistreatment and illegal wage discrimination. As these cases show, there’s a reason why prices are always dropping at Wal-Mart—so are wages, and the taxpayer is left to pick up the slack. Locking employees into the store, making employees work after punching out, denying employees break time, and paying most employees so little they can’t afford the Wal-Mart health care plan is just a sample of what Wal-Mart does to the local townspeople who have to work at Wal-Mart because their “low low” prices have driven local stores out of business. The costs of Wal-Mart stores are borne by the local taxpayer: “A February 2004 report issued by Representative George Miller, D-California, tabulated some of those costs. The report estimated that one 200-person Wal-Mart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year — about $2,103 per employee. These public costs include free and reduced lunches for just 50 qualifying Wal-Mart families, Section 8 housing assistance, federal tax credits and deductions for low-income families, and federal contributions to health insurance programs for low-income children.”. Keep this in mind the next time you think you see an inexpensive good on Wal-Mart’s shelves.
  • Nike is famous for employing Indonesian and Mexican sweat shop labor to manufacture its famous sporting goods which are sold at exhorbitant profits. Nike pays by the fraction of a second, according to documents recovered from one of their trash bins by an anti-sweatshop labor organization interviewed in “The Corporation”. The US “free trade” zones are made through treaties including NAFTA, CAFTA, and with the help of organizations including the WTO which were formed for promoting anti-worker trade. These treaties open poor countries up for multinational corporations to economically compel people there to work for sub-living wages.

None of this is an accident. It takes considerable planning and long-term oppressive thinking to put together the strategy for making sure the world’s poor never earn enough money or control enough political power to threaten the rich.