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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 14:50 GMT
Is business facing up to its responsibilities?
In 1984, one of the worst industrial disasters occurred in India when poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and spread through the surrounding shanty towns.
By the time the gas had dissipated more than 2,000 people had been killed and 200,000 others injured.
According to environmentalists, the toxic legacy of Bhopal's chemical disaster continues to ruin people's lives.
As a result of incidents such as these, large corporations have been forced to acknowledge 'corporate social responsibility', balancing the goals of the business with the interests of those who own or work for it.
But many feel business has yet to fully accept its responsibilities, and it's only a matter of time before we see yet another disaster.
So has big business become more responsible? Or should governments and consumers assume equal responsibility?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
For the developed counties, the US, in Europe and in Asia, big business has failed miserably. With inflated numbers and transactions that should never have been thought of, let alone done. I don't know what the clear solution is. I think it would have to be handled by individual government, since tax laws and business standard are different in every country.
In a light of strict regulations abroad and downward pressure to keep prices low for their products, so that the citizens of those wealthy and developed nations can enjoy products at a lower price and still protect their environment, it has become a grim reality for Third World countries, to server as a "toxic zones" of the so-called wealthy and developed nations.
The questions asked are very context specific in nature. It really depends upon the country a business is established, and in a country like India it varies from region to region not because the law varies but because the implementation of law varies. However, overall big corporations have become socially responsible due the constant social pressure and standards set through various laws.
Although there is generally very little we can do about this, surely we have a moral responsibility to take whatever action we can against bad companies when they involve Western citizens, Western funds, or Western-patented technology? The terrible tragedy at Bhopal involved a Western company and Western citizens and yet not only did we not facilitate the justice/compensation claims, but we are even guilty of hindering them. Shame on us.
Dow Chemicals is one of the largest chemical companies in the world and it keeps growing. I wonder what would have happened if the company had killed ten people in the US by the same negligence shown in India?
The responsibility should ultimately lie with the companies. The people who organise safety for these companies (management, engineers and safety inspectors) should be held to the highest liability for their actions if their negligence leads to injury or death. I'm an engineer living in Ontario Canada and I know if Union Carbide had happened here, heads would roll.
The red tape famously blamed for non-investment and dismal growth in the first 40 years of our independent history is also to be blamed for continuous suffering and injustice here in Bhopal. The companies who get past these bureaucratic webs consider themselves answerable to none and are than protected by the same web. We need to reinforce transparency in our society and government, one which neither hinders development nor protect criminals.
Big business has become so much more responsible that it has even started cooking up its books in shareholder's interests. Or demanding compensation from drought-affected countries!
I think there has been a slow shift in businesses from being completely callous about environmental and social impact to at least aware of these impacts. However, over time, even companies have come to realize that the bad press surrounding accidents such as Union Carbide or using of child labour as in the case of Levis in Bangladesh or Nike in south east Asia, can indirectly hurt the one thing companies treasure most: profits.
Bhopal made the most cogent argument against globalization in that a remote MNC can't be expected to have the interests of the local community at heart.
However, if communities are empowered to manage their affairs free of big government interference, the businesses would do their due share in community development.
Gilbert White, London, UK
One correspondent wrote that there is the equivalent of a Bhopal every year in India. Actually there is a Bhopal every month. That figure is based on my work on safety and health in India over the last decade. More than 100,000 thousand workers are killed every year in accidents. At least as many again die from diseases caused by work. But don't just blame companies - the government of India is supremely indifferent to the problem.
(Author 'A Bhopal Every Month')
The government should be responsible for overlooking the behaviour of big corporations and define rules which will make sure that the big corporations take necessary steps for the safety of its surrounding society.
Business does not face up to its responsibility by itself. There are conmen in any walk of life, only businessmen are the worst kind. Besides they commit at least some of the deadly sins like greed and envy. So capitalism and businessmen must be kept under a tight rein with rules and regulations by a watchdog. Or else, capitalism will die like communism!
Consumer apathy has a very large part to play in such issues. How many of us contribute to organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty without checking the labels on our clothes or appliances? Companies will never be compassionate for humanity's sake, they will do whatever the paying public demand. It's totally in our hands.
Big business will never become fully responsible because it always has its eye on the bottom line. It is incumbent upon the people and their governments to regulate business, whether related to stock markets or the environment. The relentless emphasis on profits works to undermine even well-intentioned managers. Add to the mix the human capacity for mistake, and it's surprising we don't see more catastrophes. Pass comprehensive laws and give regulatory bodies the teeth to enforce them.
Governments must protect their citizens from the selfish interests of business by establishing proper oversight and penalties for endangering public safety. Why do you think all those companies left here? It wasn't just the labour cost issue. The governments of developing nations must take up the responsibility of protecting the best interests of their people by creating laws and institutions to safeguard public health and welfare. Isn't that what government is supposed to be for?
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