Conflict & Justice

Are human rights negotiable in public-private partnerships?


In this photograph taken on June 6, 2013, Indian women use umbrellas to shield themselves from rain as they pluck leaves from tea shrubs in a large field at a tea garden near Binnaguri in the north eastern Indian state of Assam. Tea is indigenous to India which is the second largest producer in the world behind China.



NEW DELHI — More complaints of human rights abuses at eastern Indian tea plantations that are majority-owned by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and various branches of the multibillion-dollar TATA Group, again have exposed the dangers of allegedly neglectful oversight of international aid in public-private partnerships between government and business.

This past February, three NGOs filed a report through the World Bank’s Council Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) that accused Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL) of tolerating “long working hours, undue compensation, poor hygiene and health conditions, [and] a lack of freedom to association.”

APPL is a major supplier for TATA’s Tetley Tea brand and retains a nearly $8 million investment from the IFC, though accusations of human rights abuses date back to 2009.

A non-partisan observer who visited the plantations this last month reported that, despite the two complaints, working conditions at APPL still have not changed. “Toilets are unusable, small children as young as six [are] caring for younger siblings while their parents were working,” said the observer, who requested to stay anonymous, and “schools don’t meet minimum standards required by law.”

These observations add to the bleak picture painted by a 2010 report from the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which had implicated APPL in the death of Gopal Tanti, a 25-year-old worker charged with spraying pesticides with no protective gear.

According to the IUF report, on the morning of his death Tanti complained of feeling ill to his supervisor Rustom Ali Morha and asked for “sick leave,” but Morha “reprimanded him, accused him of being lazy and told him to work.”

Later that day Tanti collapsed in the field and when concerned coworkers tried to rush over to him they were told to keep working for an hour before they could check on him. When they were able to assist, it was too late, as by that time Tanti had already died.

Despite the two ongoing investigations before the CAO and years of independent complaints, IFC’s South Asia communications head Minakshi Seth says the World Bank Group has not divested at all from APPL “nor [is divestment] planned.”

The IFC’s reluctance to withdraw its investment in the case of APPL echoes prior accusations from Columbia University professor and financial journalist Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, who wrote in ProPublica that the IFC is “not in fact primarily targeted at helping the impoverished” but rather pursuing the more “important goal of making a profit for the World Bank.

This is not the first time that the IFC has been accused of sacrificing ethical goals for financial ones. Similar complaints have been lodged against the IFC when it proposed an investment in Lidl, a European supermarket chain with a history of controversy regarding labor relations. And IFC likewise has been criticized for investments in South Africa’s Marikana mine, which saw violent protests over worker conditions and compensation.

Though the IFC received a AAA rating from Standard and Poor’s in 2012 regarding its fiscal outlook, a CAO audit from the same year concluded that the organization in fact “knows very little about potential environmental or social impacts” of its ventures.

Nor is the IFC alone in not providing adequate oversight for international public-private partnerships, which bring together governments, corporations and private foundations to provide goods or services abroad and have become increasingly common as government aid budgets tighten.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) didn’t realize it had funded a palm oil cooperative on land stolen by forces loyal to Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as "Macaco,” until he was arrested in 2008.

HRW claims the cooperative was seized during Macaco’s drug-running campaigns, which included massacres, torture, and mass displacement.

Despite a separate case in which USAID ceased involvement with a similarly controversial company when groups in the United States lodged complaints, HRW alleges that, in this situation, the US government “seemed willing to turn a blind eye to rights abuses” by not pursuing adequate oversight.

According to a 2012 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, even though public-private partnerships “will [likely] continue to grow in popularity and diversify in practice” for the foreseeable future, their “current emphasis on financial value for money assessment within PPP” neglects the social impact of investment. In the international arena, where respect for sovereignty and geographic limitations make this oversight increasingly difficult, financial success further obscures the actual social damage that is potentially inflicted by giving money without sufficient strings attached.