The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 5

N E W S   M O N I T O R

Consumers of the World Unite In Tokyo

by John Cavanaugh

Sixty kilometers northeast of Tokyo, Japan stands a haunting monument to the victims of crimes against humanity. Two artists, survivors of the nuclear attack against Hiroshima, have painted lifesize murals that retell the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Japanese invasion of China.

In the midst of this testimony to war stands a giant mural depicting violence from anther source: the private corporation. There the viewer meets the victims of Minamata, a city in southern Japan that became the focus of national attention when the Chisso Chemical Company dumped tons of mercury into its coastal waters during the 1950s and 1960s. The poisoning brought disfigurement, mental retardation, and death of hundreds.

On April 5th and 6th, 300 consumer activists met near this museum to consider a wide spectrum of issues related to the violence which has become a landmark of the modern corporation. Organized by the International Organization of Consumer Unions (IOCU), the conference was hosted by eight organizations of a rapidly growing Japanese consumer movement.

Under the leadership of its current president, Anwar Fazal of Malaysia, IOCU has become a potent force in coordinating consumer activities in areas where transnational corporate behavior renders local or national action ineffective. In the same way that they avoid labor unrest by shifting capital across borders, multinational corporations can export products banned in one country to unwitting consumers elsewhere.

Plenary sessions and workshops at the conference discussed many of these products, and campaigns to control them. Major topics included:

  • Pharmaceuticals: Among the conference participants were victims of the drug clioquinol - an anti-diarrheal drug produced by Ciba-Geigy Corporation (see story on p. 16) whose use has induced continuous pain, paralysis, blindness, and, in some cases, death. This disease crippled between 10,000 and 30,000 in Japan alone before it was removed from the market in 1970. But it is still sold in many Third World countries, often without prescription.

    Consumer action discussed ranged from campaigns to ban clioquinol and other dangerous drugs, to efforts to support a new governmental policy in Bangladesh which exerts strong national restrictions over the 50 to 60 drugs multinationals that control the annual $80 to 120 billion world pharmaceutical market.

  • Pesticides: The conference heard testimony about lucrative contracts between chemical multinationals and the government of Thailand that ensure delivery of millions of dollars of pesticides to that country's rubber plantations and rice paddies every year. Large quantities of these pesticides, including brands banned in their country of origin, flow into Thai lakes and streams and are poisoning the country's chief source of protein - fish. Participants told of one government official who has tried to curb the flow - and received threats on his life.

    The two dozen multinationals that control the $12 billion global pesticides market now face an IOCU-coordinated Pesticides Action Network (PAN), which is stimulating joint information exchanges, strategies and other coordination between local groups.

  • Tobacco and alcohol: Seven multinationals (the "seven smoking sisters") and several dozen alcohol multinationals have unleashed massive marketing efforts over the last two decades targeted at the Third World, women, and youth. The harmful social, economic and medical effects of increased consumption of these two products rank among the major health problems in the world today. Several IOCU members have launched public awareness campaigns on tobacco and alcohol, and some have moved to curb marketing and promotional activities.

Other sessions focused on testing, education, governmental regulations, and trade in hazardous products. IOCU is coordinating a Consumer Interpol, consisting of organizations in 30 countries fighting the dumping of hazardous products, dangerous technologies, and toxic wastes.

Numerous participants encouraged IOCU and the consumer movements to extend debate and campaigns beyond traditional consumer concerns. Over half of consumers in most developing countries fall outside multinational marketing networks. As a member of the Consumers' Union of Japan pointed out, "supermarkets in Manila sell a variety of Japanese food products, but many of them are out of reach of most of the people who are paid only $4.00 a day." At the same time, impoverished people are often the victims of the development strategies of their governments, which too often are geared to meet the needs of multinationals.

IOCU members also discussed building coalitions with other groups in their societies. Consumer groups, in their struggles against corporate abuses have found natural allies in workers groups, environmental organizations, womens groups, and churches. To counter the impact of corporations that are multinational, the consumer movement has realized that it must supplement strong local action with new alliances that are equally multinational in scope.

It should therefore come as no surprise that within the last six months, scathing attacks against IOCU have been launched by the Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick (see MM, January 1983). Consumer issues - not to mention consumer and labor solidarity - have no place in the global system these conservatives so vehemently defend.

John Cavanagh, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author of The World in Their Web: The Dynamics of the Textile Industry.

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