IT’s hard to ignore the ever increasing disparity of wealth throughout our world.
For many, they’ve never had it so good. More money, more possessions, more food than any one person could ever feasibly need. But alongside this world of excess resides a world of abject poverty and despair.
These two worlds are not mutually exclusive; sadly it is often the desperation of those most vulnerable that drives the profits of the wealthy. Major multinational corporations (MNC) are not only exploiting this disparity but enhancing it with systems of production that directly perpetuate the inequalities.
Harsh reminders of this lopsided system have come to light this week in a number of reports detailing extreme labour exploitation occurring throughout the region.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International released its damning report of child labour occurring on Indonesian palm plantations. Children as young as eight were reported to be working in “hazardous” conditions for long hours and low pay. Wilmar International Ltd, the Singapore based company who runs the offending plantations, supplies their product to global consumer companies including Unilever, Nestle, Kellogg and Procter & Gamble.
Another instance came to light from a Guardian investigation into the exploitation of migrant workers in McDonald’s restaurants in Malaysia. The Nepalese workers were deprived of their passports, paid a fraction of their promised wages and made to live in squalor while Human Connection HR, the recruitment company responsible, turned a profit and McDonald’s reaped the benefits of cheap labour.
While the countries in which many of these MNCs were founded employ the resources and legislation to regulate the work environment and ensure workers’ rights, the countries in which they conduct business often don’t. With globalisation and increasingly flexible supply chains, many producers turn to outsourcing to exploit the cheaper labour and lax regulation of other nations.
This leaves many developing nations in a difficult position.
Their desperation to stimulate economic growth by luring foreign investment can often preserve the lax regulation and perpetuate the disregard for workers’ welfare. In the case of Indonesia’s palm plantations, the laws were in place to protect workers but a lack of enforcement by government prevented it.
It’s undeniable that the private sector has the ability to increase productivity and help pull a developing nation out of poverty, but they cannot be given free rein to flaunt human rights in the process.
The inevitable denial and distancing that comes from these companies following such reports is infuriating. By continuing the practice of outsourcing, they ensure that they continue to turn a profit whilst avoiding culpability should anything go awry.
While it may be true that the MNCs were not directly aware of these immoral practices, the reason is simply that they just didn’t ask. These are leaders in world industry, they have the resources to implement due diligence and investigative audits into their supply chain. Had they taken the effort to delve deep enough, they would have uncovered these themselves.
For companies that pay lip-service to workers’ welfare and promise their customers sustainable, ethically sourced products, you have to wonder why they didn’t.
The answer, I suppose, is simple: Money.
In a world in which doing the right thing seems to take a back seat to turning profit, we have to keep a vigilant eye on the big corporate world and ensure that they are held accountable for their actions.
It is not enough for McDonald’s to simply change its recruitment agent or for Kellogg’s to find a new supplier.
This stops nothing and the only ones who stand to lose will be the workers themselves. Responsibility must be accepted on a corporate level and any violations must hit them where it hurts – their pockets.
Until then and not a moment before, the exploitation will continue.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent