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What’s happened to the Pandora papers?

Sometime last week, I was amid a group of friends when the argument about the Pandora papers suddenly came up. In brief, the key questions raised were how come no one is talking about the Pandora papers again? What has happened to the investigations, and how come the story has now been relegated to the back seat within the media space? Although, we didn’t have enough time to debate the issues, I promised that I would be sharing my thoughts on this blog. So, I hope they are reading.

We can all agree that for many years, the issues of financial delinquencies and malfeasants have remained one of the major problems facing many societies. We have seen situations where Kleptocratic rulers and their associates loot and siphon state resources, and then stack them up in secret havens. Some of these Kleptocrats prefer to collect luxury Italian wines and French arts with their ill-gotten wealth, while others prefer to purchase luxury properties and 5-star apartments in Dubai, London and elsewhere. We find military generals participating in financial black operations, and we hear about law makers manipulating the gaps in the same laws they have created. In fact, in some spheres, we find ‘business tycoons’ exploiting violence-torn regions to smuggle gold, while in other spheres, some appointed public officers refuse to declare their assets because of fear of the future. Two years ago, we read about the two socialist presidents of the southern Spanish region and how they were found guilty of misuse of public funds. Totaling about €680m, you can imagine the good that could have been achieved in that region. We should also not forget the case of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, both of whom (we are told) amassed over $10 billion during their reign in the Philippines. As we can see below that from the offshore leak of 2013 to the Panama papers of 2016 and then the 2017 Paradise papers, data leaks have continued to skyrocket. This simply demonstrates the level to which politicians and other official state representatives are taking to invest in this booming industry.

Via BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58780561

These stories are nothing new, we have always read about them – but then they fade away quicker than we expect. It is important to note that while some countries are swift in conducting investigation when issues like these arise, very little is known about others. So, in this blog, I will simply be highlighting some of the reasons why I think news relating to these issues have a short life span. 

To start with, the system of financial corruption is often controlled and executed by those holding on to power very firmly. The firepower of their legal defence team is usually unmatchable, and the way they utilise their wealth and connections often make it incredibly difficult to tackle. For example, when leaks like these appear, some journalists are usually mindful of making certain remarks about the situation for the avoidance of being sued for libel and defamation of character. Secondly, financial crimes are always complex to investigate, and prosecution often takes forever. The problem of plurality in jurisdiction is also important in this analysis as it sometimes slows down the processes of investigation and prosecution. In some countries, there is something called ‘the immunity clause’, where certain state representatives are protected from being arraigned while in office. This issue has continued to raise concerns about the position of truth, power, and political will of governments to fight corruption. Another issue to consider is the issue of confidentiality clause, or what many call corporate secrecy in offshore firms. These policies make it very difficult to know who owns what or who is purchasing what. So, for as long as these clauses remain, news relating to these issues may continue to fade out faster than we imagine. Perhaps Young (2012) was right in her analysis of illicit practices in banking & other offshore financial centres when she insisted that ‘offshore financial centers such as the Cayman Islands, often labelled secrecy jurisdictions, frustrate attempts to recover criminal wealth because they provide strong confidentiality in international finance to legitimate clients as well as to the crooks and criminals who wish to hide information – thereby attracting a large and varied client base with their own and varied reasons for wanting an offshore account’, (Young 2012, 136). This idea has also been raised by our leader, Nikos Passas who believe that effective transparency is an essential component of unscrambling the illicit partnerships in these structures.

While all these dirty behaviours have continued to damage our social systems, they yet again remind us how the network of greed remains at the core centre of human injustice. I found the animalist commandant of the pigs in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell to be quite relevant in this circumstance. The decree spells: all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. This idea rightly describes the hypocrisy that we find in modern democracies; where citizens are made to believe that everyone is equal before the law but when in fact the law, (and in many instances more privileges) are often tilted in favour of the elites.

I agree with the prescription given by President Obama who once said that strengthening democracy entails building strong institutions over strong men. This is true because the absence of strong institutions will only continue to pave way for powerful groups to explore the limits of democracy. This also means that there must be strong political will to sanction these powerful groups engaging in this ‘thievocracy’.  I know that political will is often used too loosely these days, but what I am inferring here is genuine determination to prosecute powerful criminals with transparency. This also suggests the need for better stability and stronger coordination of law across jurisdictions. Transparency should not only be limited to governments in societies, but also in those havens. It is also important to note that tackling financial crimes of the powerful should not be the duty of the state alone, but of all. Simply, it should be a collective effort of all, and it must require a joint action. By joint action I mean that civil societies and other private sectors must come together to advocate for stronger sanctions. We must seek collective participation in social movements because such actions can bring about social change – particularly when the democratic processes are proving unable to tackle such issues. Research institutes and academics must do their best by engaging in research to understand the depth of these problems as well as proffering possible solutions. Illicit financial delinquencies, we know, thrive when societies trivialize the extent and depth of its problem. Therefore, the media must continue to do their best in identifying these problems, just as we have consistently seen with the works of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a few others. So, in a nutshell and to answer my friends, part of the reasons why issues like this often fade away quicker than expected has to do with some of the issues that I have pointed out. It is hoped however that those engaged in this incessant accretion of wealth will be confronted rather than conferred with national honors by their friends.

References


BBC (2021) Pandora Papers: A simple guide to the Pandora Papers leak. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58780561 (Accessed: 26 May 2022)

Young, M.A., 2012. Banking secrecy and offshore financial centres: money laundering and offshore banking, Routledge

United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice

Image: United Nations

Achieving justice through formal employment

This Sunday 20th February marks the United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice. The theme this year is ‘achieving justice through formal employment’. The focus is on the informal economy, in which 60% of the world’s employed population participate. Those employed in the informal economy are not protected by regulations such as health and safety or employment rights and are not entitled to employment benefits such as sickness and holiday pay. People who work in the informal economy are much more likely to be poor, in which case housing and unsanitary conditions can compound the impact of working in the informal economy.

When we in the global North talk about the informal economy, there is often an assumption that this occurs in poorer, less developed countries (it is semantics – here in the UK we use the preferred term of the ‘gig economy’). However, this is a global problem and often the richest industries and countries engage in abusive employment practices that form part of the problem of the informal economy. Let’s take Qatar as an example. Qatar has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but it also has an extremely high level of income inequality. I heard Natasha Iskandar recently discussing the case of migrant workers in Qatar during construction for the football world cup. Migrant workers are vulnerable to the informal economy due to various labour and visa restrictions throughout the world. In Qatar migrant workers were needed to build the stadia, however this came at a cost to employment conditions including wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation. At the time in Qatar, it was illegal for such workers to withhold labour and they could not voluntarily leave the country without the consent of their employers. The often-abusive employment conditions within the Kafala system of sponsored migrant labour would push people into the informal economy. Having come under some criticism, Qatar has since reformed the Kafala system to improve social protections for migrant workers and were the first of the Gulf countries to do so.

The informalisation of the education economy

On a global scale, the problem of the informal economy is vast there are unique challenges to different groups and social contexts. It will take a large-scale effort to make changes needed to abolish the informal economy globally if it ever can be abolished. Perhaps though we can start by looking a little closer to home and see if we can make a difference there. Academia has traditionally been perceived by those outside of it as a sector of elite institutions, the ‘ivory towers’, where highly paid, highly skilled academics talk from their parapets in a language those outside of it cannot understand. There is a perception that academics are highly paid, highly skilled workers with job security, good pensions, and a comfortable working life.  Higher education management in some institutions have been known to refer to academics using derogatory terms such as ‘slackademics’. As every hard-working academic will tell you, this cannot be further from the truth.

What used to be a place of free thinking, sharing of ideas, and encouraging students to do the same (note: I’m told academics used to have time to think and read) has become a place where profit and business ethos overrides such niceties.   The marketisation of education, which can be traced back to the early 1990s has seen a growth in informal employment putting paid to the myths of job security inter alia, lecturing staff well-being.  As Vicky Canning put it in the below Tweet, this constitutes institutional violence, something we criminologists are charged with speaking up against.

The university industry has become increasingly reliant on casualised contracts leading to staff not being able to get mortgages or tenancies. During my time at a previous institution, I worked on fixed term contracts as a teaching assistant. The teaching contracts would typically last for 10-12 weeks, there were constant HR errors with contracts, which were often not confirmed until the week before teaching or even after teaching had started. Each semester there would be at least a few teaching assistants who got paid incorrectly or did not get paid at all. These are the people delivering teaching to students paying at least £9,250 per year for their education. Is this value for money? Is this fair? In a previous round of strikes at that institution I let my students know that after all the work they put into writing, I only got paid for 20 minutes to mark one of their 3,500-word essays. They did not seem to think this was value for money.  

While I was working under such contracts, I had to move to a new house. I visited many properties and faced a series of affordability checks. As the contracts were short term, landlords would not accept this income as secure, and I was rejected for several properties. I eventually had to ask a friend to be a guarantor but without this, I could easily have ended up homeless and this has happened to other university teaching staff. It was reported recently in the Guardian that a casualised lecturer was living in a tent because she was not able to afford accommodation. All this, on top of stressful, unmanageable workloads. These are the kinds of things casualised university staff must contend with in their lives. These are the humans teaching our students.

This is just one of the problems in the higher education machine. The problems of wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation seen in Qatar are also seen in the institutionally violent higher education economy, albeit to a lesser (or less visible) extent. Let’s talk about wage theft. A number of universities have threatened 100% salary deductions for staff engaging in action short of strike, or in simple terms, working the hours they are contracted to do. Academics throughout the country are being threatened with wage theft if they cannot complete their contractual duties within the hours they are paid for. Essentially then, some higher education establishments are coercing staff to undertake unpaid overtime, not dissimilar to the forced overtime faced by exploited migrant workers building stadia in Qatar.

Academics across the country need to see change in these academic workloads so we can research the exploitation of migrants in the informal labour market, to work towards UN sustainability goals to help address the informal economy, to engage in social justice projects within the informal economy in our local area, and to think about how we can engage our students in such projects. In effect academics need to work in an environment where they can be academics.

How can we begin to be critical of or help address global issues such as the informal economy when our education system is engaging in questionable employment practices, the kind of which drive people into the informal economy, the kind of employment practices that border the informal economy.  Perhaps higher education needs to look inwards before looking out

Organisational reputation: A euphemism for institutional corruption and violence

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published a damming report regarding child protection in religious organisations and settings. One of the findings was that ‘In many cases, concerns about external involvement are connected to a desire to protect the reputation of a religious organisation’.  Of course, there are many other issues highlighted in the report, but I wanted to concentrate on this notion of protecting organisational reputation. When I hear the phrase ‘organisational reputation’ my blood generally runs cold because I know that behind these words lay a multitude of sins.

Companies and public sector bodies have policies that are designed, at least in part to protect organisational reputation. The rationale behind these policies often lacks transparency. It might be that the protection of the organisation’s reputation ensures it maintains its customer or client base, an enhanced reputation sees more customers or clients, a poor reputation might see this dwindle, to the detriment of the organisation and ultimately to the detriment of its employees and owners.  It is difficult to recover from a poor reputation and in the case of business, this is sometimes catastrophic.

However, behind the notions of organisational reputation and policies lays a multi-layer of complex organisational and human behaviours which ultimately lead to institutional corruption and violence. Things will go wrong in organisations, whether that be as a result of human behaviour such as poor decision making or illegal activity or as a result of system failure, such as the failure of software or hardware.  Any of these failures might harm the reputation of the organisation and herein lies the nub of the matter.  When there are failures, because of organisational culture, which often finds its basis in finding someone to blame, there is a propensity to try to keep the issues ‘in house’, to protect the organisation. By doing so, managers and those in charge ensure that they are not scrutinised regarding the failure, be that individual failures, failures of policies or failures of systems and processes.  So, the organisational reputation is not necessarily about protecting the organisation, it is more about avoiding scrutiny of those individuals in power. The mention of organisational reputation in policies and processes has another effect, it silences employees. Whistle blowing policies are subjugated to notions of organisational reputation and as a result silence is maintained for fear of some form of informal sanction.  The maintenance of silence ensures organisational reputation, but this corruption also ensures continued institutional violence and corrupt practices. The longer it continues the more those in power have a vested interest in ensuring that the issues are not addressed, lest they are uncovered as offenders through their inaction.  ‘We are all in this together’ takes on a new meaning.  Thus, corrupt or criminal practices simply continue.

And if the wrongdoing is uncovered, becomes public, then the first reaction is to find a scapegoat thus avoiding the scrutiny of those in power. Rarely in these inquiries do we find that those put in the dock are the managing directors, the chief constables, the heads of children’s services, the archbishops or politicians.  Rarely do we see those that caused the problem through inadequate or unworkable policies or strategies or working conditions are ever brought to book. Often its simply portrayed as one or two bad apples in the organisation. Thus, organisational reputation is maintained by further institutional violence perpetrated against the employee. That is not to say that in some cases, the employee should not be brought to book, but rarely should they be standing in the dock on their own.

For ‘organisational reputation, just read institutional corruption and violence.

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