MARCH 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 3
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
Three years after the passage of U.S. legislation on plant closings, the law has been put to use against a corporate violator for the first time. Maxim, Inc. which operated a factory manufacturing firefighting equipment in Middleboro, MA gave workers only 18 days notice before closing its plant in December 1989, rather than the 60-day warning period required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). The United Electrical Workers' Union, which represented Maxim's workers, sued the company for failing to comply with the law's warning period. In December 1990, the union settled out of court with the company for an undisclosed amount which will be paid to 78 former Maxim employees.
Labor activists remain concerned about the enforcement of WARN. The Department of Labor has permitted exemptions to the 60-day warning rule where a warning might discourage investment which could save the plant or where the closing is caused by events which were not foreseeable 60 days before the closing. In addition, because WARN violations are resolved by the Federal Courts rather than through the Department of Labor, enforcement requires protracted legal battles that both the workers and the closing factories often cannot afford. In the case of Maxim, a federal magistrate ordered $350,000 of the company's assets to be set aside because Maxim had no liability insurance to pay the possible settlement.
Gene Casraiff, a representative of the United Auto Workers and an authority on WARN, believes the law's stringency will be determined by court cases. "If companies follow the idea of the [law] itself, [WARN] would work" says Casraiff. If they do not, he says, organized labor will demand stronger legislation.
Diamonds to Dust
Threatening what may be Africa's largest elephant herd, De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., in cooperation with the government of Botswana, hopes to commandeer large quantities of water from the Born River for its diamond mines in the Kalahari Desert. The river runs through the Okavango Delta, the world's largest in-land delta, which contains not only elephants but 100 other kinds of mammals and over 300 species of birds. Dc Beers wants to dredge 25 miles of the river in order to increase the flow of water downstream. The water would be stored in dams and used to wash diamonds out of the company's massive open pit mines.
The Boro River normally dispenses most of its water to the Okavango Delta, which the World Conservation Union has proposed as a United Nations World Heritage Site due to its abundant and pristine wildlife. The Okavango is now Botswana's top tourist area. The river may also become a major source of drinking water in this country which is so dry that the word for rain, pula, is the name of Botswana's national currency.
De Beers and the Botswana government created the dredging project without consulting either the general public or the local people. The BaTawana, a minority ethnic group which lives in the sparsely populated Okavango, have witnessed several other failed dredging schemes which have caused rivers to dry up cornpletely. Commenting on the ecosystem's fragility, Isaac Tudor, a BaTawana advisor, called the Okavango "a miracle hanging on to the edge of a desert" in a recent Dallas Morning News article.
The Kalahari mines, which are the world's richest, have been worked for 30 years. De Beers previously diverted water from Lake Xau, which is the region's only source of water in the dry season. Environmentalists estimate that hundreds of thousands of animals died when De Beers fenced off the lake. Skeletons of the zebras, wildebeests and other animals who were drawn by the smell of the water are reportedly still visible around the fenceline.
De Beers is part of South Africa's largest company, Anglo American Corporation, the world's largest producer of diamonds as well as of gold and platinum [see "Anglo American Corporation: A Pillar of Apartheid," Multinational Monitor, September 1988].
Western pharmaceutical companies tested experimental drugs on East German citizens without obtaining their consent, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel. In 1989, before the overthrow of the Communist regime in East Germany, Der Spiegel reports, the West German company Berliner Import/Export GMBH contracted with the East German government and Western companies to test pharmaceuticals on East Germans. East Germany made $11 million in hard currency by conducting these tests; Berliner Import/ Export took a 30 percent cut of the earnings.
A subsidiary of Hoechst AG, Asahi Chemicals of Japan, the Austrian firm Chemie Linz and Boehringer IngeIheim all had drugs tested in East Germany. Patients were tested with higher than normal doses to discover the effects of stronger treatment. Those who took the drugs experienced symptoms ranging from mild nausea and fevers to hair loss, heart palpitations and tremors.
Since unification, the practice has been stopped. West German law requires written consent from experimentation candidates.
- Jim Sugarman