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An MNC and its toxic TV waste adventure

04 July 2015

Multi-National corporations (MNCs) use Asia as the dumping ground for the toxic by-products of their ventures. Sounds familiar?

One of the most egregious examples of this is the recently-concluded trial on one of the region’s worst industrial disasters, which occurred in North Asia.

This trial, which took a decade to run its course, ended with the Asian court ruling that the former technology giant was clearly behind this industrial disaster. The verdict was that the MNC had to pay nearly $US20mil in damages for dumping toxic waste at and around its Asian plant. The sum awarded was about a fifth of what the victims of this toxic waste had originally claimed in their lawsuit. The case was on the basis that certain chemicals in the dumped toxic waste were found to be, with “reasonable medical certainty”, related directly to the many serious illnesses that befell the victims. Those who became ill from the pollution were former as well as current employees of the company.

The MNC began its operations nearly 50 years ago, employing thousands of people to make about 6,000 colour television sets a day. The rage at that time was of course, the massive demand for the colour television.

As the company needed to get rid of the toxic waste, they instructed some of its employees to dig wells, into which they discharged the toxic waste from their manufacturing activities. Such burying of pollutive substances was found to be illegal because, ultimately, the toxins seeped into the soil and contaminated the groundwater.

The court found that the company’s previous employees – mostly women from poor families – were exposed to as many as 20 types of poisonous chemicals. The findings revealed that these factory workers used solvents to clean the printed circuit boards that would then be assembled as part of the TV sets and other electronic products. Sometimes, the workers applied these solvents with bare hands, and breathed in the solvents’ volatile compounds. All these were done within the factory premises with very poor ventilation and air circulation. Whenever the workers stopped to wash their hands, drink and eat, they did so with the untreated groundwater pumped from, you guessed it, the same wells into which all the toxic waste solvents had been dumped.

Exposure to solvents

Undaunted that they were up against a huge corporation with very deep pockets and influence, these ex-employees formed a self-help group in 1998 and, with the help of volunteer lawyers, began a lengthy battle against this giant. The lawsuit grew into a class action lawsuit against the polluter in 2004, during which they sought compensation for what was truly an occupational hazard.

The case, however, took several twists and turns. For one thing, the original manufacturer responsible for all the dumping became defunct in 1986 when it was bought by another MNC technology giant.

Then in 1988, that second giant sold the manufacturer to yet another multi-national corporation.

To make things even worse for the victims of the prolonged poisoning, a lot of the original information on the plant was destroyed in a warehouse fire. The warehouse fire seemed to be a terribly convenient way to get rid of information and corporate files.

Almost a trend when corporate memory is to be wiped clean. The fire threw the legal process off for a while as there was no longer any data on the plant’s operations that might have linked specific toxins used in production to the ex-employees’ illnesses.

The size of the challenge was such that the legal team fighting for the ex-employees was 80 in-strength, all working on a pro bono basis. The amount of coordination and determination needed to keep things going well was almost like a detailed military exercise.

Epidemiologists had to step in to painstakingly assemble the scientific evidence to support the victims. One among them alone testified over more than 14 sessions, spanning 50 hours, as an expert witness. 

This landmark case has since laid the groundwork in three areas: how big legal teams should work together on cases such as these; how companies should behave if they want to sustain their businesses; and how Governments need to regulate safety and health standards.

The case also exposed how flat-footed the Government was in being caught unaware by such a flagrant violation of environmental responsibility.

The Government at that time had few, if any, measures to regulate such hazardous pollution. That, sadly, was exactly why the MNC chose to build its factory there – cheap labour costs and no safety standards to adhere to, which of course was a cost that directly impacted the MNC’s bottomline.

Hindsight is always 20-20 but one would have thought that most companies would have a plan on how to stay in business and that would include measures on how to dump the toxic waste.

One would have thought that a basic rule of thumb would be that if you kill off your labour force, you would be definitely shortening if not ending, the life cycle of your business.




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