Sunday, 24 March 2013

Holcim and human rights

The focus may be on Aggregate Industries, but what of Holcim - AI's parent company and the ultimate owner of Straitgate Farm? What sort of neighbour and employer has the world's second largest cement producer been to communities across the world?

Aargauische Portlandcementfabrik Holderbank-Wildegg originated in 1912. In 2001 it changed its name from Holderbank to Holcim.

Holderbank/Holcim has often been heavily criticised on a variety of issues: because of its links to the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of repeated violations of competition laws, because of its noted unwillingness to work with unions and because of environmental problems caused by its cement factories... The decision to rename the group Holcim was in response to the desire for a fresh start for the cement multinational, whose image had been tarnished by a series of scandals.

And yet in 2012 Holcim was still attracting negative attention. MultiWatch, a Swiss-based coalition of aid agencies, non-governmental organisations, political parties, workers unions, church groups and others, that monitors Swiss multinationals for human rights violations, published a critical book on Holcim. The company responded:
MultiWatch has published a book ("Zementierte Profite, verw√§sserte Nachhaltigkeit") [Cement profits - Diluted sustainability] about Holcim on the occasion of the company’s centennial. The key focus is the alleged discrepancy between expectations and reality in the work of Holcim in India, Latin America and South Africa. MultiWatch accuses Holcim of unjust wages, violation of trade union rights, and destruction of environment and habitat. Holcim was not given any chance to comment prior to publication. In view of the serious character of some of these allegations, we regret this very much. If such a dialogue had taken place, the half-truths, mistakes and distortions the book contains could have been avoided. Holcim is committed to sustainable development. Holcim has high standards, as demanded in the book, and rightly so we are measured against them. We do not claim never to make mistakes, but we endeavour to give our best and, where necessary, to take corrective measures.
Despite Holcim's assertions, MultiWatch has a Holcim Manifesto and online petition, and claims:
Repeatedly we find violations of Labor and Trade Union rights in Holcim's plants worldwide. We discover various occupational diseases suffered by Holcim’s employees and residents living near Holcim’s plants. We observe ecological devastation, even as the decisions of indigenous populations and other communities affected by Holcim are disregarded... In many parts of the world, there are employees, populations affected by Holcim’s activities, and civil society groups in solidarity with them, who are united in their protest against Holcim’s practices. These protests shall continue until Holcim keeps the promises the management has given.
But the claims are not just by MultiWatch. Last year Holcim was accused of "flouting OECD guidelines" on workers' rights at its plants in India by trade union PCSS. It was backed by Swiss unions UNIA, ICEM, BWI and solidarity organisation Solifonds. Demonstrations were held. BWI claimed "details of the case are shocking and include the worst examples of workers’ rights violations around the world". Earlier this year, five workers died in an accident at one of Holcim's plants in India.

And it's not just India. Holcim in Latin America is a series of damning case studies by Friends of the Earth, who brought "a case against Holcim exposing just how the company violates the human rights and devastates the livelihoods of local communities".
While Holcim floods international forums and the press with propaganda about the virtues of their activities, the inhabitants of Apaxco Atotonilco continue the fight to expose the underlying environmental conflicts and impacts on human and environmental health...
Meanwhile "U.S. plants have been fined repeatedly for environmental violations": A Holcim cement plant "emitted over 2 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2006". In 2012 Holcim paid a fine for an alleged unauthorised groundwater discharge, only three years after a $2.75 million penalty "the largest ever assessed to a nationwide ready-mix concrete company for storm water violations under the Clean Water Act" at 23 AI facilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

And even today, a headline "Revealed: How Holcim Paid For Sri Lanka Shares In Dubai", alleges: 
One of the larger corporate takeover transactions in Sri Lanka was more remarkable for the way in which the foreign company paid significant sums out of Sri Lanka, in contravention of the exchange control rules at the time. The full impunity and extent with which Holcim ignored Sri Lanka’s laws can today be revealed. A source close to the transaction said, “The scale of impunity with which this Swiss company – from the land of independence, cuckoo clocks and banking secrecy – treated our laws beggars belief. Would they do this in their country?”
What's all this got to do with Straitgate? Nobody is suggesting that a sand and gravel quarry would be as environmentally damaging as a cement plant. Or that AI's staff here are treated like Holcim's in India. But it raises questions over the integrity of AI's owner, and any environmental or sustainability claims. Mostly it highlights the fact that any struggle we have here with AI pales into insignificance when compared with the struggle of others in other parts of the world, with other parts of the Holcim machine. However, this passage from Friends of the Earth International, in connection with its campaign in Latin America, could in time resonate with people in East Devon:
When open pit mining of construction material commences near a community, it’s just a matter of time before people begin to feel the consequences of such an activity which generates such high quantities of pollutants. Although not as catastrophic as metallic mining, alluvial mining implies the degradation of landscapes and aquifers, increased air pollution, ground instability and the irreversible loss of diverse environmental values. All these effects have significant impacts on the health and welfare of affected populations.