The Georgia Straight (Canada)
A U.S. consumer watchdog gave a Vancouver audience a lesson in “corporateering” on March 27. Jamie Court, executive director of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, defined corporateering as how “commerce changes social mores as well as the rule of law and ethics” to harm individuals and benefit corporations.
“A corporateer is someone who practises corporateering,” Court said at a public forum on corporate and government accountability held at the Vancouver public library.
For example, Court said, corporateering could involve forcing employees to sign noncompetition agreements that take away their intellectual property and freedom of association by preventing them from working for competitors. He said that the installation of surveillance systems in the workplace is another example of corporateering because this violates individuals’ privacy rights.
“There have been reports that people routinely have their e-mail read and sometimes have their voice mail monitored, and some people have actually been fired for making phone calls in the workplace,” he said.
Court has worked with several corporate “whistleblowers”–people who alert authorities and the public to wrongdoing in the workplace–whom he described as the “most courageous people in our society”.
He cited three such examples in his speech: Dr. Linda Peeno, a medical director at the U.S.-based health-care corporation Humana, who alerted Congress to the company denying medically necessary treatments to patients; Jo Ann Lowe, an Allstate Insurance employee who revealed fraud in the way the company responded to house-insurance claims following an earthquake; and an unnamed accountant who successfully sued his former employer on behalf of the government after the company kept two sets of books so it could bilk taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, Court said that corporateering–placing the corporation’s priorities above those of the individual–has made it easier for companies to isolate and retaliate against whistleblowers. “There is no long-term protection,” Court said. “There is no value in playing this role.”
Court’s new book, Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom…And What You Can Do About It (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam), cites 10 U.S. laws to counter corporateering and explains how the public can use them to hold companies more accountable.
Another speaker at the forum, Duff Conacher of the Ottawa-based group Democracy Watch, told the audience that Canada lags far behind the United States in providing protection for whistleblowers. Conacher said that only four federal laws–those dealing with environmental protection, human rights, labour, and competition–give people the right to blow the whistle. None require the person to do this.
“In all of those four laws, there is no one to go to blow the whistle [to] who is empowered to investigate as well as protect the whistleblower from retaliation,” Conacher said.
He contrasted that with 22 federal laws in the United States that provide whistleblower protection, as well as laws in 33 states giving general protection for blowing the whistle on violations of the law by any corporate or government entity. “There is only one province, New Brunswick, that has a general law,” Conacher said. “Once again, there is no place to go that will protect you as a member of the public or as an employee.”
Conacher said that whistleblower protection is an essential ingredient in accountability over political financing, government ethics, and the handling of access-to-information requests.
“If the employees in the know are not empowered to share what they know, the regulators can only ever get so close to the inside operations of any government or corporate institution and hold them accountable for unethical behaviour,” he said. “Whistleblower protection is a very key method of closing a key gap in a lot of the accountability measures and accountability systems that we have been trying to build up in Canada and in other countries. Because it is such a key measure, we don’t have whistleblower protection in Canada.”
Conacher also said that corporations do not want their internal systems and reputation publicized, so they fight any attempt to impose accountability measures. “The only reason that the polls have shown, I believe, in past years more faith by Canadians in business as opposed to governments is because businesses do not have access-to-information laws, ethics laws, or any kind of accountability measures where governments have,” he said. “So all of their wrongdoing remains secret, behind closed doors, shuffled away. This has been admitted by people who do audits of corporations. Most corporate fraud is dealt with quietly, and the person is let go and losses are buried in the books.”