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Sue the Sweatshops


Canada slightly improves in my esteem after its ketchup-related crimes by moving in a very positive direction on holding its corporations accountable for sweatshop labor overseas.

Many countries do not have adequate laws to protect human rights and their legal system and governments lean towards corruption and away from punishing large, multinational corporations. So Canadian companies are able to hide behind government corruption and inadequate legal systems to hurt people in ways that would be illegal in Canada.

This year, the British Columbia Court of Appeal allowed a lawsuit to proceed against a Canadian mining company who, allegedly, hired a private security company to open fire on protestors using weapons that included shotguns, pepper spray, buckshot and rubber bullets. The first judge who heard the case ruled that the lawsuit had to proceed in Guatemala. The Court of Appeal disagreed:

I conclude that the judge erred by ignoring the context of this dispute and placing insufficient weight on the risk that the appellants will not receive a fair trial in Guatemala. That risk should not be ignored … I simply conclude that there is some measurable risk that the appellants will encounter difficulty in receiving a fair trial against a powerful international company whose mining interests in Guatemala align with the political interests of the Guatemalan state. This factor points away from Guatemala as the more appropriate forum.

The case shows Canada’s increasing willingness to hear international cases involving Canadian companies. This is a positive trend that could have a positive impact on international business practices.

Canada is not the only country trying international labour and human rights cases. Lawsuits have been brought against Nestlé in the United States, for example, over allegations of human trafficking and child labour in the Ivory Coast.

Lawsuits against Canadian companies operating abroad serve at least three purposes: educating the public by publicly shaming companies; deterring companies from future abuses, thereby hopefully changing business practices; and, compensating victims who would otherwise have no redress in their home country.

There are limits to relying on international lawsuits. They’re expensive, complicated and require a tremendous amount of work. The victims often barely have enough money to feed their families, let alone hire expensive lawyers. So victims need to be connected with funding and Canadian lawyers willing to take on their case; not an easy task. The corporate defendants also have enough finances to hire teams of skilled lawyers to defend them, creating a true David and Goliath scenario.

A few thoughts here.

First, the issue of where a lawsuit is located is critical. Guatemalan workers are not going to receive a fair trial in Guatemala, nor Bangladeshi workers in Bangladesh. In the latter, the sweatshop owners control the government by holding many of the offices. In an international economy, you can’t have corporations able to move around the world at will to find the most favorable legal climate and workers and citizens forced to deal with the laws of where they live. That playing field must be evened if global workplace justice is ever created

Second, the lawsuit really isn’t the most ideal form of enforcement, for the reasons the author states. Workers don’t have the assets for this and neither do their western supporters. Suing a corporation is very hard to do and of course the corporations are making it harder all the time. But it is a tool that can force some sort of legal mechanism to be created. For instance, the workers’ compensation system in the U.S. was only created because after decades of juries and judges rejecting the claims of injured or dead workers and their families, they started accepting them and companies all of a sudden found themselves liable for large damages. They then pushed for some sort of logical system. It favored them more than the workers, but it was a start. That’s the power of lawsuits in a situation like this.

Finally, in the U.S., the non-interventionist left really doesn’t take foreign policy seriously. That’s true from Bernie Sanders on down to your local activist. What trade agreements look like and what corporations do and don’t do overseas is part of this foreign policy. We have to articulate concrete policies around these issues if we want to fix these problems, not to mention if we want to reorient American relationships with other nations in a more positive and less exploitative way. The ability to sue corporations in American courts for the actions in they or their supply chains commit overseas must be part of this package. It’s good politics too, or at least I think so. This should be something of a model for us and I hope we can move to make this a central plank of liberal/left politics in coming years.

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