Justice: time to call in the law

October 24, 2015 - Mary Milne, Traidcraft Campaigns Manager

Last month I had the privilege of travelling to Kankoyo in Zambia’s Copperbelt. I say privilege because it was an amazing experience and the generosity of the people I met was humbling.

But in some respects it was also a terrible experience.

The community of Kankoyo live just downwind of one of Africa’s largest copper smelting plants. Sulphurous gases from the plant regularly blow over the small brick houses, the nearest of which are just a few hundred metres away. Hardly anything will grow and even the iron roofs are corroded by constant pollution.

All the people we met talked about how the pollution from the plant is damaging their lives. For people living on the breadline, not being able to grow their own vegetables has a big impact. And the cost of replacing roofing sheets and repainting walls just adds to this.

But the biggest impact is on people’s health. Anglina described how it feels to be caught in a cloud of gas:

‘Your eyes feel like you’ve put chilli into them. And then your nose – you start sneezing. And your chest… when you are walking, it feels like you are breathing in smoke.’

For some people, the effect is even more serious. Seven year old Bertha has had respiratory problems ever since she was a baby. Now, the repeated emissions are damaging her health and her chances of getting an education.

You can watch our video of Bertha and her dad Felix here.

The copper mine and smelting plant is owned by multinational company Glencore which is listed on the London Stock Exchange. You can read their response to our findings here.

But the tragedy is that this plant isn’t the only one operating in this way and Zambia is not the only country where this is happening. 

The CORE coalition, of which Traidcraft is a member, has just published a new report highlighting ten examples of UK companies causing serious human and environmental harms overseas, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has details of many more allegations.

These include forcing people off their land, causing pollution that destroys health and livelihoods, labour abuses, and threatening any opposition to their activities, sometimes with violence.

Perhaps we should not be surprised about this, because at the moment there is nothing to stop irresponsible companies getting away with things like this. Not one company has been prosecuted in the UK for serious harms committed overseas.

That’s why Traidcraft thinks it’s time to put in place a legal framework to hold companies to account and allow victims justice.

As a fair trade company based in the UK, we understand the realities of doing business around the world. But irresponsible companies are undermining the actions of those businesses which are working hard to do the right thing.

Using the law to prosecute irresponsible companies would incentivise companies to put in place the systems necessary to prevent harm before it happens, deterring businesses from turning a blind eye in the knowledge that they are unlikely ever to be held to account.  

Find out more about the Justice campaign.