Mallen Baker asks why international companies get knocked when things go wrong, but smaller companies remain anonymous

You’ve probably never heard of Marcelo Kemeny, or Alejandro Bohn. But, for sure, you’ve heard of Tony Hayward.

Kemeny and Bohn are the owners of San Esteban, the mining company that was responsible for trapping 33 miners 700 metres below ground for 69 days.

It has been a hugely high-profile story. People across the world watched with fascination and emotion as the first miner was finally brought to the surface in an immensely impressive technical feat of engineering.

The fact that the miners survived their ordeal was down to the heroism of the men concerned, the leadership of the shift manager, and the skill and application of a number of companies that worked to bring them back to the surface.

It has been a great human interest story. Interestingly, it has not much been a corporate malfeasance story.

After all, here was a smoking gun if ever there was one. San Esteban had cut corners at the mine for years. It was known by the miners to be dangerous, but nothing had been done. Conditions for reopening the mine had not been met, but the mine had been opened anyway.

Safety shortfall

The company was supposed to build a tunnel with a ladder leading from an underground shelter to the surface. When the trapped miners got to the shelter and tried to use the escape route, they found that the company hadn’t bothered to finish it after the first third of the way.

And what is more, the company played no part in the rescue. It had claimed that it could not even pay the wages of the men trapped underground, since the stoppage of the mine had affected it so deeply. The government ordered its assets to be frozen, including about $1.2m in revenues.

Compare this with the BP oil spill. Like the trapped miners, here was a tragedy that continued to play out over weeks and months, adding to its impact on the public. But unlike the Chilean case, it became focused on a particular company, a particular leader, and the story became one of blame.

But then everyone knows BP. They know the brand. Its service stations are highly visible. Its leaders are well known and, historically at least, admired by their business peers.

Had the mining company concerned been a BHP Billiton or a Rio Tinto, there would have been more interest – more focus on the chief executive. But faced with this particular accident, it’s easy to dismiss it as the product of poor regulatory standards allowing unheard-of, fly-by-night cowboys to get away with exploiting workers.

People die in mines all the time. No fewer than 2,600 people died in mining accidents in China last year – a number that considerably dwarfs the beneficiaries of Chile’s good news story. They mostly die in illegal mines, and nearly always mines operated by companies that are widely unknown.

The irony is that the multinational corporations in the extractives sector have probably done more than most to address corporate responsibility issues.

This point was made at a session on extractive companies I attended recently at the House of Lords, held by GoodCorporation by sheer coincidence on the day that the miners began to emerge.

The reason they have done the most is that they have the biggest impact, by the nature of their industry. They were faced earlier than most with demands from society that they clean up their act.

Slow progress

And some people still believe them to perform poorly, simply because the gap between where they should ideally be and where they actually are still carries stark consequences in terms of human rights, environmental damage and community impact.

But you have to ask yourself whether the scrutiny of the big-name multinationals that has come – partly as a result of the rise of the corporate responsibility movement, partly because of the scrutiny of certain campaigning NGOs – has had the unintended consequence of letting the San Estabans off the hook.

Because it is the big names that get the scrutiny. It’s the brands that produce the reports. And the community of critics focuses on finding ever-smaller cracks in their picture.

Elsewhere truly awful people continue to plunder with little consequence to themselves but plenty to others.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

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