Saturday, April 28, 2007

Child Slavery and the Chocolate Factory

From the blog, Socialist Banner

The BBC is reporting that child labour, in fact, near enough actual slavery, remains an unresolved problem in the Ivory Coast, the world's biggest cocoa producer.

A 2002 report by the industry body, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, put the number of children working in dangerous conditions in cocoa in West Africa at 284,000 in 2002, 200,000 of them in Ivory Coast. Many children on cocoa farms don't get to school, some exchange their childhood for work, a roof over their head and a meal a day. Others have been sent by their parents into virtual slavery, suffering beatings and abuse. Progress in eradicating child labour has been slow.

Naturally not very particularly good news for the chocolate manufacturers in the more developed countries. There can be no worse PR for a chocolate company than news that children in West Africa - the source for the bulk of the world's cocoa - are being forced to pick beans used to make chocolate for the children in the West.

A voluntary industry initiative, called the Harkin-Engel protocol, was set up in 2001. Its initial aim was to have a system in place to monitor labour conditions on cocoa farms by July 2005. That deadline shifted has now towards a 2008 deadline to monitor labour conditions in 50% of farms in Ghana, the world's number two producer, and neighbouring in Ivory Coast.

Mme. Amouan Acquah, the government official responsible for child labour issues in Ivory Coast, makes the excuse that "We are in a state of war. We cannot make such guarantees." Yet with or without war, Ivory Coast's cocoa has always made it to the world market. Critics say that if the cocoa can get to market even in times of conflict, then it should also be possible to monitor labour conditions on the farm.

Mme Acquah points out "The issue at the heart of this [child labour] is poverty."

In the words of cocoa farmer Eugene Djedje "No one is obliged to send a child to school. If you don't have money you don't go."

Some major companies that knowingly use chocolate produced by slave labor:
- Hersheys
- M&M/Mars
- Nestle
- Ben & Jerry's
- Kraft
- Toblerone
- Hauser Chocolates

Alan Johnstone

The “nine eleven truth” movement by John Moeller

From issue 3/110 of the newspaper, Solidarity, which is produced by the British Trotskyist organisation, the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

A meeting in the Casa, the former headquarters of striking dockworkers in Liverpool. Nowadays it is the usual location for left wing events in town. The hall is so crowded that some listeners have to stay outside in the corridor. It might be triple the size of a normal lefty audience. Who has attracted this many people? It's Mr David Shayler.

Shayler used to work as a spy for the British Security Service, until he discovered that his employer doesn't stick to the usual official ideals of liberal democracy (the branch he worked for tried to kill the Libyan leader Gaddafi with a car bomb). Shocked, Shaylor quit his job and told some professional secrets to the media, which led to his temporary imprisonment.

Generalising his own experience with the intelligence services, Shayler was one of the prominent figures who claimed after 11 September 2001 that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were not caused by Islamist extremists, but by the Americans themselves, namely by the CIA.

Conspiracy theories of these type have become very popular all over the world during recent years. A whole movement has emerged - in the UK too - called the "nine eleven truth" groups , investigating what is "going on" behind the scenes of events like 9/11.

When you listen to their discussions two typical features of the conspiracy theorists become very obvious: the presumption of an idée fixe, which has to be justified afterwards; and a highly selective perception, which takes everything in account which is likely to give evidence for that idea and ignores everything which contradicts it.

"We mustn't let ourselves be divided", insists Mrs Annie Machon, David Shayler's co-defendent and former colleague, "no matter what in particular one or another believes to have happened on 9/11, the important thing is that we all agree that the official version cannot be true."

To prove their case the "truth activists" adapt rather bizarre theories, which are far more unlikely than the official version. David Shayler, for instance, claims that what we have seen flying into the WTC were not real aeroplanes, but mere holograms, projected into the sky to cheat us.

Why do people believe in this stuff? And, an even more basic question, why are they so keen on speculating about unlikely "truth" about an event which happened thousands of miles away and had little direct impact on their lives?

Shayler explains his motive: "Our democracy is in danger . . . the spies have become so all-powerful that they're already controlling even our elected members of parliament. If we won't stand up and act, this will lead to a totalitarian rule of one kind or another." This alarmist statement expresses an idealistic view about liberal democracy which is very common among the "truth movement": Elected representatives are there to carry out the will of the people and to look after their well being, aren't they? If our needs and desires are neglected by those representatives the only explanation is that there must be someone who secretly prevents them from doing their job - either by cheating, or by corrupting them.

In fact, they are doing their job quite well. The function of states in the capitalist world market is to provide convenient conditions for investors and to protect property. If they don't do so, they will fail in the competition against other states. Thus, whether they like it or not, democratic rulers have to organise the effective use of their electors' labour for the accumulation of capital, with all the negative effects this causes.

The trick of bourgeois democracy is that it also encourages people to participate in the discussion on the improvement of their own exploitation! This has proved to be much more effective than dictatorial rule - at least in wealthy countries which can afford to distribute some benefits to workers for their participation.

Are the conspiracy-searching activists basically democratic idealists who have gone mad, driven round the bend by elected governments who do the opposite to what they expected? That's part of the explanation. However, where does this idealism comes from" There are elements within the milieu who don't hesitate to cheer on even the most barbaric Islamist actions, if they are directed against the American empire and the alleged conspiracy behind it. That is nihilism not idealism.

The element of truth which underlies the "nine eleven truth" movement is that, as they say, we really don't have the sovereignty over our own lives. But we don't need a secret plot to explain that alienation.

It is more productive to think about the alarm clock that interrupts your dreams in the morning and forces you to work; or the boredom and stress of wage labour which steals your time and energy; or the permanent threat of personal failure in competition which undermines your mental and physical health; the exclusion of both material wealth and the satisfaction of participating in the productive co-operation of society while you are unemployed; the security service men who prevent you from taking what you desire in shops and warehouses. And so on...

The majority of people don't have control over their lives because they are detached from the means of production and have to sell their labour-power as a commodity. There have been times in history when this insight has been relatively widespread among working-class people, impelling them to organise themselves collectively to improve their living conditions or even to do away with the system of wage labour.

But we live in a time of defeat of working class organisations. That has led to atomisation, isolation and therefore impotence of the individual. It has become increasingly difficult for people to imagine how to fight collectively for their interests.

The situation has made a whole leftist milieu ready to adapt conspiracy theories of Shayler's type: a struggle against the imaginary evil of a world wide conspiracy becomes the substitute for the struggle against the real evils which occur in everyday life in capitalist society.

The total absence of economic questions in the debate at the Casa was one of the most conspicuous details of the evening. "You must speak to your neighbours, your colleagues, your family members", urged Mrs. Machon, "to make them aware of the lies they are telling on TV about 9/11!". Well, it's all right to communicate with the people around you - but why start a conversation on such an odd topic rather than on questions which affect your lives directly?

If the "nine eleven truth" groups were simply a movement of concerned citizens observing the intelligence services and accusing the bourgeois state when it violates its own laws and ideals, there wouldn't be much to oppose. But they are something different.

Their conspiracy theories claim to give an exclusive insight in the hidden causes for all the evils of the world. In doing so, they lead attention systematically away from the most important immediate antagonisms. They spare people the possibility of confrontation with the powerful and the risk of failure.

This worldview is attractive and hermetic, and hard to criticise. This type of thought is not, as it has been argued, a first step to becoming more conscious and critical about the problems of society, but the opposite: it is a kind of collective psychosis which increasingly detaches people from reality.

The fact that a meeting of the lunatic "nine eleven truth" sect takes place in the location where struggling dockers used to meet a decade ago, is a horrible indication of the lamentable state of the British left of today.
John Moeller

Cooking the Books

From the forthcoming May 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Cooking the Books (I) Underlying cause

On 23 March 2005 an explosion and fire occurred at the BP-owned oil refinery in Texas City. Fifteen workers were killed and 170 injured. The US Chemical and Safety Hazard Investigation Board decided that, on this occasion, it would investigate not just the technical causes of the explosion - which valve was left open, who left it open, which alarm wasn't working, and the like - but also "the underlying and significant cultural, human factors and organizational causes of the disaster that have a greater impact".

The result was a report two years later which the Times (21 March) headlined "Watchdog points finger at cost cuts in damning verdict on BP. Budget pressures behind refinery fire. Top management knew of problems".

BP had acquired the refinery when it took over Amoco in 1988. Following this, BP's chief executive, Sir John Browne, set a target for all its plants of reducing fixed costs in the year 1999-2000 by 25 percent. These are costs other than labour and materials and consist mainly of buildings and equipment including the costs of maintaining them. "In 2002", the report discovered, "BP engineers proposed connecting the Isom blowdown drum system to a flare but BP chose a less expensive option". The refinery manager "ruled against the investment and stated in an e-mail: 'Bank the savings in 99.999 per cent of the cases'".

The Chemical Safety Board's report concluded: "Cost-cutting and budget pressures from BP Group executive managers impaired process safety performance at Texas City".

To go beyond the technical reasons for the explosion and investigate other factors was a step in the right direction. But not far enough. The Board only looked for "the underlying and significant cultural, human factors and organizational causes" within BP. But why stop there? Why not ask what pressures BP's top executives were under to behave in the way they did?

If the Board had done this, they would have to have taken into account the declaration issued on the occasion of the BP take-over of Amoco in 1998:
"The managements of BP and Amoco already have a shared financial philosophy. The targets our companies have previously set are very similar - powerful annual earnings growth, a strongly-competitive return on capital, and dividends in line with underlying earnings" (see article, BP-Amoco Merger).

And also that, at the time, the price of oil was low, meaning that the main way to keep up profits would be by cutting costs rather than increasing sales. And that in fact it was to face what Sir John called in the same statement the "fierce" competition on the energy market that was behind the take-over. And, further, that takeovers involve an expenditure of money which has to be raised one way or another. And that raising this added further pressure to save money and - "in 99.999 per cent of the cases" – bank it.

The cost-cutting exercise was successful - in the middle of it Sir John was elevated to be Lord Browne of Madingley for services to industry - as recorded by the Times financial columnist Carl Mortished:
"In 2000 BP boasted that it had generated $2 billion in cost-savings, and then, in 2001, Lord Browne of Madingley announced a further $2 billion in 'performance improvements'. By the end of 2002 a further billion dollars was pulled out of the hat and the BP chief executive announced a programme of $2 billion stock repurchases. The cashflows were being delivered in places such as Texas City".

Cooking the Books (II) Just A Yellow Metal

"Gold prices could pass $850 record" read a headline in the Financial Times (5 April), reporting a forecast by a metals consultancy of what might happen over the next 12 months. As gold is currently selling at around $670-80 an ounce, this would be a huge increase. If something like this had happened a hundred years ago, it would have brought about financial and economic chaos by causing a huge fall in the general price level.

This was because at that time gold was still the money-commodity, as the product of labour having its own value in which the values of all other commodities were expressed. Prices were expressed in units of currency, but these were defined as a given weight of gold. A pound, for instance, was defined as about 1/4 oz of gold. This meant that anything taking the same amount of socially necessary labour time to produce as an ounce of gold would have a price of £1.

If the amount of socially necessary labour needed to produce an ounce of gold fell, a rise in the general price level would result since other commodities, containing more value, would exchange for more gold. If, on the other hand, the labour-time cost of producing gold increased, the result was the opposite: a fall in the general price level. Which is why an increase of the order of from $680 to $850 an ounce would have caused chaos a hundred years ago.

The reason it won't do so today is that gold is no longer the money-commodity. Up to World War 1 gold was used to settle international payments. Also, there were gold coins in circulation, along with paper notes that were convertible into gold at a fixed rate. This system collapsed with the outbreak of war in 1914 and, despite attempts to revive it between the wars, never really worked again. Nearly all currencies became "inconvertible", i.e. no longer exchangeable on demand into a given amount of gold, which has remained the case ever since.

At the end of World War 2 a new system for settling international payments was established based on the dollar. The exchange rate between other currencies and the dollar (and so between the other currencies) was fixed, but, since the dollar was defined as 1/35 oz of gold, gold still played an indirect role as the money-commodity as a standard of price.

This system, with its repeated devaluations of the different currencies, came to an end in 1971 when the US government abandoned its commitment to pay $35 for an ounce of gold. After that, all currencies floated and, though central banks still retained gold reserves, gold became an ordinary commodity, another precious metal alongside silver and platinum, whose price fluctuations have no effect, either way, on the general price level.

The price of gold is still expressed in dollars but, nowadays, rather than a change in the price of gold leading to a change in the value of the dollar, it's the other way round. One of the reasons for the expected rise in the price of gold is the current weakness of the dollar. Another is perceived future economic insecurity in that gold, as a product of labour, is still a store of value which, if the fears are realised, is better to be left holding than a mere piece of paper. Which is why central banks still keep some gold, though Gordon Brown has been criticised for selling off half of Britain's stock from 1999 to 2002 ("Brown lost £2bn selling UK's gold", Sunday Times, 15 April).

When socialism, where of course money will be redundant, has been established, there will be a long-standing proposal as to what to do with gold waiting to be considered. In his book Utopia in 1516 Thomas More proposed it be used for making chamber pots. Some 400 years later Lenin moved an amendment to replace the words "chamber pots" by "urinals". In the end, we'll probably just use it for jewellery and other ornaments.