Not content with damaging the health of workers inside their factory and residents outside, Sonae is now trying to stop criticism of its conduct from being published. Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte tell us about this attack on Nerve’s freedom to tell the facts.
In Spring 2004, Nerve published an article (click here) about the Sonae chipboard plant in Northwood, Kirkby. The article was carried on the Nerve website. Then, somewhat curiously, just before Christmas 2006, the hosts for our website informed Nerve that they’d received a letter from solicitors under Sonae’s instruction, threatening legal action against the website for having “a damaging effect on [Sonae’s] reputation”. But Sonae’s reputation is damaged not by what is written about it, but by its actions – it is a serial offender.
In our 2004 article, we described the company as a habitual criminal. The catalyst for our analysis was the company receiving a fine of £37,000 for three environmental offences at its plant. After we had analysed the health and safety record of the company, we also found a long list of formal enforcement actions against the company by the government regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Between May 2001 and October 2002, HSE issued 12 notices – eight immediate prohibition notices (the most serious form) and four improvement notices – to the company regarding safety violations at the plant. In other words, we identified the company as a ‘recidivist’ or repeat offender for its pollution crimes and its crimes that injured the workers at the plant.
Now, the company might have been taken aback by our description of them as a ‘recidivist’ since references to ‘recidivists’ or ‘habitual offenders’, in popular and political usages, are usually to individual, lower-class, offenders. They refer normally to the marginalised groups upon whom the criminal justice system, polticians and media focus all of their attention when scoring points on ‘law and order’. But there is no necessary reason for this – and by almost any definition, these terms are appropriate when applied to Sonae.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a recidivist as “one who habitually relapses into crime”. Historically, the Home Office has used a two year time window within which to measure its reconviction rate. On these definitions, then, Sonae is a repeat offender - what might be popularly termed a habitual criminal.
When we describe Sonae as a recidivist, we are choosing our words very carefully. It is not a loose or overly-flowery use of language that leads us to describe the company in this way, but a sober analysis based upon the criminal record that it had accrued for crimes committed between 2000 and 2002. Three years on, our analysis is supported further by the fact that some of the incidents described in that earlier article have ended up in successful prosecution.
In April 2000, the HSE instituted a prosecution following a Sonae employee, Ian Fairclough, becoming trapped in the clamping mechanism of a hydraulic press, suffering serious crush injuries to his arm and chest. In February 2003, Sonae was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £16,703 costs. Mr Fairclough was off work for more than three months and was left with a disability down his right side. Three years later, at the time of the prosecution, he still needed treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. The judge said: “It is important that firms such as Sonae do not sacrifice safety for profits. In this case, more care should have been taken and more precautions put in place to ensure such accidents do not happen.” (Liverpool Echo, 25 February, 2003)
In April 2001, Michael McNamara broke a leg after it was caught in a piece of machinery. On 20 May, 2003, Sonae was fined £35,000 and ordered to pay £6,417.90 in costs, following successful prosecution by the HSE for two offences under the HSW Act 1974 related to this incident. Ian Connor from the HSE said: “It is a lesson not just for Sonae, but for all employers to assess the risks and make sure proper safeguards are in place, as well as making sure employees are adequately trained and supervised... The combination of a lack of safeguards with the lack of training and supervision left this an accident waiting to happen.” 1
In June 2002, there was a dust explosion (one in a series) at the Sonae plant. Worker John Thomas’s life was “saved” when firefighters took him from the fire, and he was taken to hospital “seriously ill” (Liverpool Echo, 3 June, 2002), with “head, chest and back injuries” (Liverpool Daily Post, 27 July, 2002). On 10 July, 2006, Sonae was fined £70,000 and ordered to pay £77,046 costs at Liverpool Crown Court pleading guilty to a charge arising from this incident. At the conclusion of the case, the HSE noted that as well as Mr Thomas being injured, “many others were placed at risk and very substantial damage was caused to the premises”. HSE Inspector Tim Beaumont, who headed up the investigation, added, “The basic problem uncovered by our investigation was that during the design and construction of the factory in 2000, Sonae did not take an overall view of safety in connection with the manufacturing process.” 2
On 14 June 2002, a worker was run over at the plant by a reversing fork lift truck. This led to a HSE prosecution which resulted, in December 2004, in a fine of £12,000 and costs of £13,099.3
The record, then, over this two year period was four health and safety prosecutions following an environmental prosecution for three offences. And we must emphasise that we are not dredging up old offences here - all of these convictions are current, in the sense that convictions resulting in fines for adult offenders are not considered ‘spent’ in England and Wales for five years. What is more, this conviction record set alongside the long list of enforcement notices detailed above represents a staggeringly high level of enforcement – for in the current business-friendly climate, HSE inspectors are encouraged to negotiate and bargain with managements rather than take legal action. In those terms, ‘recidivist’ and ‘habitual offender’, seem both warranted and even a little mild.
Sonae does not seem to have learned the lesson drummed into other criminals: "Thou shall not re-offend". The latest incident, when a pump room caught fire, shows this (Liverpool Daily Post, 26 February, 2007). A debate in Parliament has since taken place with the MP for the area, George Howarth, calling for the factory to close until safety is guaranteed.
But there’s a bigger story here in Sonae’s attempts to prevent anyone criticising it for illegally injuring its workers and polluting the local community. Behind Sonae’s knee-jerk bullying lies a story of how power seeks to operate. ‘Power’ has many meanings, is recognised in many ways, and takes many forms. Yet some features of power - often under-recognised – are integral to understanding what it is and how it operates.
For one thing, power seeks to silence. It seeks to silence dissent, opposition and alternative viewpoints and understandings of how things might be. Power claims for itself the right to speak freely, while seeking to deny credence to, or muzzle, the voices of others if they dare to challenge power. Second, and related, power seeks to protect itself from scrutiny. Those individuals and organisations, for example, to whom we might ascribe power are at their most powerful when they can operate without having to account for, or even have recognised, their actions or inactions. In short, power is most effective when least acknowledged.
Sonae may well prefer the facts of its offending to be less rather than more public – that’s one of the intrinsic preferences of ‘power’. And in this, they fall into line with a long history of corporate efforts to silence critics, whether they are campaigners, journalists or academics. But as Helen Steele and Dave Morris, the ‘McLibel Two’, proved when they took on McDonalds, even against the biggest corporations, and even with inherently biased law, the truth can be spoken to power. Sonae’s bullying threats do not place us in any situation comparable to Morris and Steele’s heroic battle with McDonalds – except for the fact that this is also a fight that the corporate bullies cannot win.