Thursday, 19 July 2012

Sumitomo Chemical Factory

Photography was prohibited within the factory compound. Please suffice with a substitute courtesty of Sumitomo Chemical's website.

"Our business must benefit society, not just our interests."

In the history of the founding of Japanese establishments, there appear two categories. The first, into which most random examples fall, grew from the surge of the post-war decades. A tag of Est. 1960s or 1970s is impressively ancient; the 1940s or 1950s, prehistoric. And then there are the zaibatsu keiretsu: the enormous business conglomerates with histories as dynastic monsterweights with hands in as many economic sectors (and government offices) as have ever existed, dating in some cases centuries back into the Edo Period.

Sumitomo Chemical, founded in 1913 producing fertilizer from the emissions of copper smelting in Ehime, is a component of one such conglomerate, the eponymous Sumitomo Group. Courtesy of the UN University, I lately had the chance to take a tour their plant in Chiba prefecture, on the heavily industrialized east shore of Tokyo Bay.

The slogan I opened this with, an admirable credo which shines with magnificence, was therein asserted to our group in a series of presentations and company documentation over a complimentary bento lunch. And of course it immediately begs the question: how far does the company reflect it in its deeds?

I will admit straight away that I am the last person who can offer an informed answer, any more than a molecule can drift around the corner of a room for a few hours then judge if the country that room is in is well-governed. There are vast and multiple dimensions to "benefiting society": sustainability, labour rights, raw material extraction conditions and the ethics of business partners, among others. For a chemical company, sustainability is the big one, and thus receives the most attention in the documents: including sustainabile development, and the provision of cutting-edge mosquito nets in Africa and suchlike. All well and good if the accounts are true; but once more, I have no present way to judge.

With friendliness and professionalism, the tour guides duly directed us into a maze, or rather a city, of stacks, piping, railings, stairways, cylindrical and spherical containers, and miscellaneous unidentifiable paraphernalia in which the temperatures ranged from 1100 Celsius – in the case of a naptha cracking furnace – to close to a hundred degrees below zero for cold storage. All this constituted the processing sequence for the ethylene plant, whereupon I should emphasize that chemistry, hydrocarbons and all, has never been my strong point and much of what actually went on in this industrial behemoth's billion reactions was lost on me. But yes, looking through a window into temperatures a thousand degrees higher than those around you, separated only by a few centimetres of plastic, is cool.

And did I mention that this ethylene plant makes up one little corner of the smallest of the Chiba works' three gigantic compounds?

They make all sorts of things with these substances, a few of which we got a look at in huge rooms of heavy equipment in the central compound. Through 'injection moulding' they can apparently take the stuff pumped out by that ethylene process and shape it into a brand-new car bumper in less than a minute. Next door were machines to draw out resins into sheets of film, for use in household goods and agriculture; while the aforementioned mosquito nets are made with fibres that constantly radiate insecticide from their cores to their surfaces, thus remaining as effective as when first soaked through five years' of washing and use, and indispensable, so it was presented, in the drive to roll back global malaria.

I hope, sincerely, that Sumitomo Chemical are as good as their word, and produce and apply their goods with all the responsibility and ethical fibre they were keen to impress. Again, I cannot answer, only ask: and there is one thing in particular I would like to ask about.

Sumitomo Chemical is developing one of its largest and most profitable operations in Rabigh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, as many know but few like to speak of, currently hosts some of the cruellest and most unconscionable abuses against humanity know to our kind: foremost among them sexual apartheid (i.e. the forcible separation of all males and females not related by blood) and a further range of gender-based atrocities, especially in regards to degrading the power and dignity of women. These and other repressions are enforced not only by law but by the bloodthirsty religious police, the mutaween; all to asserting a vision of Islam which, through their oil money and political and religious influence worldwide, actively seeks to scourge the Muslim world of the most beautiful parts of its diversity, and remake it all in the Wahhabi image.
(And just in case anyone missed how there are some things that no line of cultural relativism can defend, the latest example of this is the Saudi hand in the rise of Ansar Dine in northern Mali, where they have seized control of Timbuktu and set about demolishing some of the most renowned and venerable Muslim cultural heritage in the world. This is reflected, of course, in the systematic destruction of ancient Islamic heritage which Saudi Arabia has itself conducted in Mecca and Medina, employing exactly the same doctrines as a pretext.)

Ultimately this becomes a question to Muslims everywhere: how calamitous would it be, if a thousand years from now, humanity might hear of Islam and equate it only to the callousness of Saudi Arabia, because the Wahhabis managed to eliminate all historical record of any alternatives, and quite probably plunge the world into unimagined bloodshed and hysteria in the process? It is not a future anyone would want, and surely the time to resolve the madness on that peninsula is long overdue. The destruction of history may reach further than we can bear in its consequences: look at Qin Shi Huang in China, for example, and draw the line from his burning of books and burying of scholars to Mao's obliteration of the country in the Cultural Revolution, and China's ongoing struggle with the horrors first released on its people by those ancient Legalists.

I digress, and return to our friends at Sumitomo Chemical. "Our business must benefit society, not just our interests." Thus: do men and women have equal opportunities to work at the facility in Rabigh? Does the company protect their right to associate and work together? What protections have those employees from the mutaween? What use is made of the company's corporate clout to help the humans of that region forge a better future?

There is no middle ground to operating in a country like Saudi Arabia. One either contributes to rolling back the Wahhabi programme of purging the love from humankind – thereby improving society; or, one acts complicit in it, and thus has a hand in society's descent into madness. In this case, which has Sumitomo chosen?

Of course I have no idea. Anyone in the area up for taking a look around in Rabigh and finding the answers?

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