Taiwanese Firms Abroad Must Mind Their Image

Closer scrutiny of Taiwanese companies overseas is not only good for the planet and its people; it’s also good for the nation’s image
Photo: Davidlohr Bueso / Flickr CC
Photo: Davidlohr Bueso / Flickr CC
Jenny Peng
By

As we speak, a mass crime against Vietnamese people in the southern province of Dong Nai may be taking place. Vedan Vietnam Enterprise Corp Ltd. (味丹企業), a Taiwanese-owned company that makes monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG) in food products, is currently under investigation for allegedly hiring two truckers to dump 50 tonnes of untreated industrial solid waste in an open area in Bien Hoa City.

Photo courtesy of Dong Nai police, April 9, 2015.

Asked about the April 9 incident, company vice president Ko Chung-chih (柯宗志) repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the truckers and the investigation. In a separate probe, one man who claimed to be a public relations staff said they were waiting for a response from the police and redirected any further updates to the company website.

This is not the first time the company has made headlines for environmental violations. The firm, which is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange with exports to Chinese and North American markets, was caught in 2008 for illegally discharging wastewater — about 105 million liters of untreated wastewater, according to local police — over a period of more than 14 years.

Destroyed livelihoods

Government inspectors charged the company for polluting 77 percent of the Thi Vai River “through secret underground pipes” and completely destroying its ecosystem, local news agency Tuoi Tre News has reported. Vedan was fined US$7 million and settled out of court with hundreds of affected farmers in 2011. The true extent of the damage and lives affected, however, remains a mystery.

News reports on these cases have virtually gone unnoticed with the public due to a lack of reporting outside Vietnam. As a result, public pressure on Vedan in Taiwan and parts of the world where it sells beverages and instant noodles is nonexistent.

Yet in an age where businesses are minding their public image, we as consumers and members of the public have more power than ever to exercise our voice to change industry behavior aligned with our humanitarian and environmental values. In a globalized economy, what happens in Dong Nai no longer stays in Dong Nai. I could be funding Vedan by buying the goods they sell at my local grocery store.

Early foreign investor

Before the days when direct foreign investment in Vietnam, which has an abundant, low-wage workforce, was attractive to the rest of the world, Taiwanese companies were already establishing themselves in the Southeast Asian country. Investment there began in the early 1990s, with Vedan Vietnam starting operations in 1991. The steady flow of capital has ranked Taiwan among the top accumulated foreign investors with 2,400 projects valued at US$28 billion. Between 1991 and 2010, economic growth averaged 7.5 percent each year, and 5.6 percent ever since. The trend, according to the World Economic Forum, is set to continue.

Local pressure from the Vietnamese, a country with a GDP per capita of US$5,600, on corporate misconduct is not enough. In a country where agriculture is the predominant industry, most citizens would probably have difficulty accessing the information in the first place. That is why the media and the international community need to act as watchdogs for citizens everywhere, especially in developing countries and among at-risk populations.

‘Cancer villages’

It is no coincidence that “cancer villages” are cropping up in Vietnam. The Vietnamese environmental protection authorities have identified 37 “cancer villages” across Vietnam thus far. These villages have an alarmingly high concentration of water pollution and people suffering from infectious diseases and cancer. More than 1,000 deaths from cancer in these villages over the past few years have been recorded. Out of the 814 water samples from rivers, streams, and wells in these villages, pollution concentration exceeded allowed rates by up to 80 percent, according to a February report from Thanh Nien News.

Disposable cultures

Every economy depends on its ability to tax the environment. The larger the economy, the more it taxes. In North America, Europe, East Asia and Latin America, regions where wages are generally higher and where capitalism is the norm, a consumer mentality is also taking hold. The consumer mentality in both the industrial sector and within society has led to unprecedented convenience in our daily lives at a price to the environment, and ultimately at the cost of our wellbeing.

The circumstances in Vietnam may sound like a world away from our homelands, where we enjoy stronger infrastructure and environmental regulations. But the unethical businesses we buy from are filling the landfill every day, thanks in part to our lack of awareness.

Most of us have been directly and indirectly affected by cancer, and not always for reasons of our own lifestyle choices. Something greater is happening, and these illnesses are telling us to wake up and think about the health of the planet as connected to our own health. The Vedan case is just one among many. Closer scrutiny of and incentives for good practices by the Taiwanese companies that represent us abroad is not only good for the planet and its people — it’s also good for the nation’s image as a responsible stakeholder.

 

Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist specializing in global affairs and international reporting

2 Responses to “Taiwanese Firms Abroad Must Mind Their Image”

April 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Bringing people to account for the externalities their actions result in is not necessarily simple or easy. Boycotts are both relatively simple and easy, but are not typically successful. Crushing the company with vast fines or other legal punishments could incur costs (in terms of lower productivity, lost jobs, lower incomes etc…) greater than the costs of cleaning up the waste in the first place. An attempt must be made to find an efficient solution.

All that being said, informing the public about such pollution cases is necessary if the public are to be expected to try to do anything about them. Unfortunately however, neither this article nor the linked-to article are particularly informative. Here are three points on which this article could have been much improved…

1) What exactly was the “untreated industrial waste”? Given that Vedan’s main product is supposedly MSG, I would imagine that their waste product is used-up sugar cane or molasses from the fermentation process – in which case, this can be treated and resold as fertilizer. Might there not be a further story as to why they haven’t done this? Or was the “untreated industrial waste” something else entirely? We just don’t know.

2) On whose land did Vedan allegedly order the waste to be dumped? This article does not say, whilst the linked-to article merely describes the land as “unused”, which, does not tell us whether the land was owned by a private party with clear (or defunct?) property rights over it, or whether it was owned by the government (or whether it was in some odd sense “unowned”). We just don’t know.

3) If the land has a private owner, are they able to ascertain damages and take Vedan to court? If not why not? What are the typical problems of the Vietnamese legal system? The author mentions that the company has been forced to pay out compensation to farmers previously in 2011. It seems this approach has not worked as a deterrent, so why not try to find a new, more efficient way to formalize the process of paying for the costs of pollution, whatever those may be?

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April 27, 2015 at 7:19 pm, Jenny Peng said:

Thank you for your feedback. My hope is to eventually get a fellowship grant. The funding would enable reporting (on the ground) in Asia and getting to similar points you raised.

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