British prime minister Gordon Brown today faces heavy criticism for launching his Business Call to Action on global poverty alongside corporations that have been widely attacked for deepening poverty and undermining human rights.
The attack comes from the charity War on Want as Mr Brown and the United Nations Development Programme host a meeting with business leaders to showcase private sector initiatives.
The companies behind the Call to Action on the UN’s anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals include several that War on Want has condemned in its reports on poverty and labour rights abuses in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
These include UK mining giant Anglo American, one of the first to sign up to the call, which has been criticised for profiting from violence against poor communities in countries such as Colombia, South Africa and the Philippines.
Wal-Mart is another which has achieved global notoriety for its record on labour rights and opposition to trade unions. In a recent report War on Want revealed that workers in Bangladesh making clothes for Wal-Mart subsidiary Asda are paid just five pence an hour for working 80 hours a week - well short of a living wage.
Coca-Cola, which signed up in support of Brown’s call at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, has also been the target of action in countries such as India and El Salvador for taking communal water resources from poor farmers and for its pollution of agricultural land.
Government officials leading the Call to Action have told War on Want that there has been no prior screening of the companies’ records on human rights or poverty, and that there is no intention of using the initiative to persuade them to clean up their operations overseas. The officials have also admitted there is no mechanism in place to measure whether the new products and services to be announced by the companies will in fact lead to poverty reduction.
This is despite UK government acknowledgement that complicity in human rights abuses, labour rights violations and pollution is “unacceptable” corporate behaviour.
John Hilary, War on Want’s new executive director, said: “This whole event smacks of a cynical public relations exercise. Instead of holding these companies to account for their actions, Gordon Brown has allowed them to portray themselves as allies in the fight against poverty. The prime minister should be working to address the poverty and human rights problems caused by business, not giving the companies a free ride.”