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Bleak future: multinationals have a moral duty to their workers abroad--no matter what their lawyers say.

In 1853, the English industrial-revolution novelist Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House, the story of a lawsuit over a family fortune that lasted so long there was hardly anybody left alive once the suit ended. Most of the disputed money wound up with lawyers.

Today, it seems Dole Food, Dow Chemical and Shell Chemical want to create a tropical version of Dickens' classic in Nicaragua. There, hundreds of banana workers have sued the three U.S. companies, claiming they were exposed to a highly toxic pesticide used to kill microscopic worms. The workers say the chemical caused them to suffer from cancer, pulmonary disease, nerve disorders, infertility and assorted skin problems. Nicaraguan courts ruled against the corporations in 2001 and again in March of this year, ordering them to pay US$490 million to 468 workers and $82.9 million to 80 more.

The three U.S. multinationals not only have refused to pay but also countersued in a U.S. court. One company even invoked a complicated U.S. racketeering law, commonly used to prosecute Mafia kingpins, to accuse the peasants and their lawyers of falsifying documents and inventing injuries.

Obviously, Dole, Dow and Shell want to prolong the legal battle until the banana workers die off or give up in frustration. Some 700 claimants died in the past decade waiting for compensation, according to Nicaragua's Ministry of Agriculture, and more than 22,000 are reportedly ill as a result of contact with the pesticides nemagon and fumazone, brand names for dibromochloropropane.

Developed by Dow and Shell in the late 1950s, the chemical is classified as "extremely dangerous" by the World Health Organization and has been banned in the United States since 1979. Yet, the claimants say, these highly dangerous pesticides continued to be used in Nicaragua into the 1980s. Damages could run into the billions of dollars.

Kevin Ryan Behrendt, Dole's lead attorney in the countersuit, told me in a telephone interview that he couldn't comment on any aspect of the case. In the past, banana and chemical companies have argued that workers rotated jobs with enough frequency that long-term exposure to nemagon and fumazone would have been rare.

Perhaps some of the litigants made up their injuries. Media and eyewitness accounts, however, indicate otherwise. In February, more than 2,400 frustrated claimants camped in front of the Nicaraguan Congress in Managua to protest the U.S. countersuit. They stayed for 51 days until President Enrique Bolanos offered them legal aid and vowed to promote their struggle at this year's United Nations Human Rights Conference in Geneva.

"Most people seemed to have breathing difficulties, problems with vision," Alan Beim, a California advertising executive vacationing in Nicaragua at the time, told me. "I saw some of the most seemingly painful skin injuries that I have ever seen in my life."

In Nicaragua, 42% of the workforce toils in agriculture. Counting workers ages 10 to 79, nearly eight in 100 suffer from pesticide poisoning, one of the highest such exposure rates in the world, according to a 2003 report by the National Institute for Working Life, a Stockholm think-tank. According to the report, in Nicaragua there is a "widespread availability of hazardous pesticides ... mainly due to the powerful influence of the pesticide industry."

Nicaragua is not alone in Latin America, where pesticide poisoning is prevalent due to a lack of regulatory laws and lax enforcement. In fact, it is a global issue for poor nations. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 200,000 annual deaths from pesticide poisoning occur in developing countries, according to World Health Organization.

Latin American governments should require multinational food companies to provide protective equipment suitable for the tropics. Multinationals, too, should help cash-strapped governments improve medical training at public hospitals so doctors can quickly diagnose and treat poisoned victims. Naturally, some CEOs will complain that such measures are costly and will hinder investment. But making workers' health a priority is not only the moral thing to do--it's also the most cost-effective.

Dickens understood this, a century and half ago, when future multinationals were being born in the sooty factories and crowded cities of England. What's going on now in the globalizing world is no different. Greed leads to self-destruction. It's a message the CEOs of Dole, Dow and Shell need to hear.


Ricardo Lopez, a nurse in Mexico's public health system (Los Angeles Times)
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Title Annotation:Silicon Jack
Comment:Bleak future: multinationals have a moral duty to their workers abroad--no matter what their lawyers say.(Silicon Jack)
Author:Epstein, Jack
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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