The Multinational Monitor


E X P O R T   O F   H A Z A R D S

Future Directions for U.S. Public Policy Initiatives on Hazard Export Issues

by David Noble

As one of the few attempts to examine the impact of U.S. exports of hazardous products and industries on developing countries, the above essays raise serious questions about the responsibilities of the U.S. government, U.Sbased companies, and American citizens. In particular, it suggests that those who have long labored and lobbied against industrial and environmental health hazards in the U.S., as researchers, activists and organizers, and policy makers, must now confront a greatly enlarged arena of activity and markedly more complex, delicate, and seemingly overwhelming challenges. The authors here reflect upon their moral and political responsibilities in this global setting and upon likely tactics and strategies for dealing with these now international problems-problems which have been induced in large part by the actions of U.S. firms and which have perhaps been exacerbated by regulatory successes at home.

These authors have several different but related concerns, for (1) product safety and consumer protection, (2) the preservation of the environment and the well-being of communities dependent upon it, and (3) the safeguarding of the occupational health and safety of workers. They worry that, if these remain uncontrolled both the flow of exported hazardous substances (consumer and industrial products) to Third World markets and the flight of U.S.-based hazardous industries (production plant and equipment) to Third World sites might both undermine regulatory efforts at home and pose a serious threat abroad in all three areas of concern.

It is understandable that, in this initial effort, these experienced people would draw first upon their experience and call for an extension abroad of the myriad measures they have already tried to implement at home. Thus, they recommend, first, issuing warnings of potential hazards to those in the Third World, through various private and state mechanisms, requiring advance notification of exported products and industries to those affected (Third World governments, consumers, and workers), and otherwise enabling people to make "informed choices" about them. This approach entails the collection and dissemination of information about exports, investments, and the hazards themselves, and reflects an extension of the "right to know" philosophy. Second, they recommend training and mobilizing those immediately affected (workers, consumers, communities), perhaps through international collaboration, to enable them to acquire vital information on their own and use it to advantage themselves locally. This approach extends the effort toward "empowerment" in health, vis-avis multinational companies and Third World governments alike. Third, these authors recommend establishing and imposing government standards, controls, and prohibitions on the manufacture, use, sale, and export of hazardous substances. This approach entails an extension of domestic regulatory procedures worldwide, through controls on trade and/or cooperative efforts among governments.

The authors would no doubt agree that the efforts enumerated have had mixed results in the U.S., especially in the wake of an intense industry-sponsored anti-regulation campaign which has been underway now for over a decade. But there have been undeniable successes, not only at the federal government level but, more important perhaps, at the local, grassroots, or shopfloor level. Some modest measure of protection against hazardous products and industries has been achieved through various combinations of government sanctions and the efforts of community, worker, consumer, and other citizens' organizations. It is this legacy of relative accomplishment (albeit severely limited, given the dimensions of the problems faced) that underlies the missionary tone of much of these discussions. the hesitant but still present assumption that the situation is more under control "here" than "over there" and that what is called for is, in a sense, a spreading of the gospel.

There are several difficulties with this domestic experienced based, missionary approach. First, it is rooted in an experience which has little relevance in an international setting. Second, while it is assumed that there is some identity of interest between people in developing countries and people here, it is also assumed that the former are "behind" the latter in dealing with these problems, and that there is thus a real difference in their situation vis-a-vis hazardous industries. In fact, the difference, if it has existed, appears to be fading fast.

First, trying simply to extend the measures developed domestically in order to deal with international problems is not so straightforward as it seems. Almost at once, one is confronted with issues of foreign policy, relations with other countries, a multitude of different government authorities, confusion not only about the means of enforcement but also its source, different cultures and priorities, and so on. Arguments for international controls, such as the moral defense of human rights, the pragmatic preservation of economic and political "good will," and the indirect self-interest of preventing exported hazards from coming back to haunt us, are readily challenged by arguments against such controls, including the selfserving charges of paternalism and ethical absolutism already purveyed by champions of free market "freedom" (read: the freedom to exploit and the freedom to yield to exploitation). In addition, ultimately, any and all efforts to extend domestic measures internationally invariably must take up what have become the major economic challenges of our time. These include restrictions on free trade in the name of "protectionism" (meaning not merely the protection of industries and jobs but of the security and health of people), controls on the mobility of capital and investment decisions, and democratic alternatives to managerial control over productions, over what is produced, where it is produced, and how and by whom it is produced. Any attempt to deal with the problem of exported hazardous products and industries must reckon with these much more far reaching and overriding issues. Without effective controls on trade, capital, and production decisions worldwide, any regulation of the flow of hazardous materials and the flight of hazardous industries will be impossible, yet we have only barely begun to reflect seriously about these theoretically troublesome and politically awesome problems and our experience domestically offers little insight and less instruction.

Second, once the central issues have been correctly identified as the establishment of controls on free trade, international capital and the practices of multinational firms, it becomes increasingly obvious that the challenges facing Third World countries are really no different from those we confront here in the U.S. For, as James Weeks indicated, the question is really one of class rather than nations, of a conflict not between rich and poor countries but between those private agents who now make the economic decisions for all nations and those people of all nations who are compelled as a consequence to choose between economic security and their health. For the same global firms which are able to set the terms of economic development and working and living conditions in the Third World are now increasingly able to do the same for steelworkers in Pennsylvania, Asian electronics workers in Massachusetts, communities in Ohio, New York, Michigan, and California. In short, those multinational firms which set the terms for industrialization in the Third World, also set the terms for deindustrialization and reindustrialization in the U.S. And so long as people here and abroad are forced, by economic insecurity, to yield to the extortionist tactics of multinational capital, and compete with one another for capital's favors, concerns about workplace health and safety, environmental integrity, and consumer protection will continue to diminish in significance, making way for an ever more "favorable climate" for investment. Thus, the too complacent missionary orientation of those concerned with the export of hazardous products and industries to the Third World ought perhaps to be coupled now with a renewed and earnest self interest at home and a belated recognition that, with regard to the power of multinational firms, the overriding need for controls on free trade, capital mobility, and managerial decision making, and the escalating threats to health, safety and the environment, we are increasingly in much the same unfortunate position as our beleaguered comrades in the Third World.

David F. Noble is Associate Professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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