May 1997 · VOLUME 18 · NUMBER 5
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
Those giveaway McDonald's toys have a high price. Keyhinge Toys (Vietnam), a maker of the giveaway toys, seriously violates worker rights, according to the Hong Kong-based Coalition for Safe Production of Toys, led by the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a Hong Kong labor rights group.
Workers at the Keyhinge Toys plant in Da Nang City in Central Vietnam earn as little as six cents an hour, according to the Coalition.
More than 90 percent of the workers at Keyhinge Toys are young women, most under 20 years old. They work nine-to-ten hours a day, seven days a week.
On February 21, more than 200 workers at Keyhinge Toys became seriously ill from acetone poisoning, according to the Coalition. Twenty-five workers collapsed and three were admitted to the hospital for emergency medical treatment after falling unconscious. Acetone, a solvent used in paints, can cause dizziness and irritation to the nose, throat, lungs and eyes.
After the February incident, Keyhinge Toys reportedly refused assistance in installing an appropriate ventilation system. In late April, according to the Coalition, acetone levels in the factory still measured more than 100 times higher than the Vietnamese standard.
The day after the acetone poisoning incident, Keyhinge Toys illegally dismissed approximately 200 workers. An inspection team from the Vietnamese Department of Labor subsequently ordered the company to reinstate the workers.
Noting that many of the McDonald's toys made by Keyhinge Toys are Disney characters given away as part of promotional tie-ins, Charles Kernaghan of the New York City-based National Labor Committee says, "McDonald's and Disney's promotional campaign targeting U.S. kids should not be based on teenaged girls in Vietnam being forced to work 70 hours a week, earning six cents an hour and breathing dangerous poisons."
McDonald's did not respond to requests for comment.
Closure of rural hospitals, anti-competitive practices, replacement of registered nurses, closure of trauma care and burn centers and possible Medicare fraud are among the charges leveled at corporate hospital chain Columbia/HCA by INFACT, a Boston-based corporate watchdog group that inducted Columbia/HCA into the organization's Corporate Hall of Shame in April.
Through an extremely aggressive merger effort, Columbia/HCA has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years [see "An Unhealthy Merger Policy," Multinational Monitor, June 1996]. The company now controls nearly 350 hospitals.
The company uses a "slash and burn" strategy to meet its goal of a 20 percent profit margin at each hospital, INFACT charges, closing costly services and replacing registered nurses with lower wage employees. The group also charges Columbia/HCA with systematically closing hospitals to eliminate competition, leaving isolated rural communities without health care. The chain has twice been fined for "patient dumping" -- discharging unprofitable patients without proper medical attention.
Federal investigators are currently examining whether Columbia/HCA, the single biggest biller of Medicare, has overbilled the government health insurance program, and whether physician investors are illegally referring patients to Columbia/HCA facilities.
Columbia/HCA's political influence is substantial. Tennessee Republican Senator William Frist is brother of the hospital chain's vice chair Thomas Frist. Senator Frist owned $13.9 million of Columbia/HCA stock as of 1995, according to INFACT, and serves on several health care-related Senate committees. The company also maintains a powerhouse of 97 registered lobbyists in 23 states, according to INFACT.
"Health care is about prevention and treatment of disease based upon need, and should not be about profit and corporate greed -- Columbia/HCA style," says Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of INFACT.
A Columbia/HCA spokesperson says the company has no response to the INFACT Hall of Shame induction, saying INFACT's information "is far from factual" and does not merit an answer.
Environmental trade bans are good for the environment and make economic sense, concludes a recent study by James Lee, American University professor of international relations.
Lee studied nine international trade bans imposed because of environmental concerns, including a U.S. ban on Mexican tuna imports to protect dolphins, a Japanese ban on U.S. apple imports to prevent insect infestation, a U.S. ban on Taiwanese trade to protect endangered tigers and rhinos and a U.S. ban on the use of driftnets.
"Expected losses were frequently exaggerated by countries whose exports were banned," Lee says. "It is clear that the trade losses are far less than generally perceived or claimed." Lee's study found that the trade bans often did not stop trade altogether, but diverted it to other markets, including domestic markets. Lee also concluded that trade tends to gradually pick up in the years after sanctions are imposed.
Trade sanctions do affect producer behavior, Lee concludes, often yielding substantial environmental benefits. In the case of the tuna-dolphin controversy, for example, Lee reports that dolphin deaths dropped from 100,000 in 1989 to 3,600 in 1993.