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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is corporate exploitation? How does corporate abuse harm people and why is it tolerated?

Corporate exploitation is when corporations abuse their power, go unregulated, and cause harm through their actions. Common forms of corporate exploitation are environmental deregulation, worker exploitation, and illness such as cancer clusters.

Read more about corporate exploitation and what it means.

Corporate Exploitation and Abuse

In Louisiana, the GOP’s electoral dominance has resulted in a business climate that enables polluters to operate with a free hand. Because of the state’s fiercely pro-business, anti-regulatory politics, the petrochemical industry knows that it has little to fear from state regulatory agencies or the pliant and cooperative state legislature.

Because of this, ordinary Louisianans (most of them loyal Republican voters) have suffered extraordinary abuse at the hands of a largely unregulated corporate sector during periods of corporate abuse including: 

  • Pollution and environmental degradation
  • Labor exploitation and hazardous working conditions
  • An alarming rate of pollution-related cancer diagnoses

Example #1: Environmental Degradation

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental watchdog groups, Louisiana is one of the most polluted states in the country. The state’s wetlands, for example, are in an extremely vulnerable condition. Since 1930, Louisiana has lost an area of its wetlands equal in size to the entire state of Delaware. This is one of the largest forms of corporate exploitation.

This can largely be attributed to the power and influence of the extraction industry, particularly the oil and petrochemical industries. These sectors are notorious for hazardous working conditions where employees are routinely exposed to potentially lethal chemicals. Companies are also known to dump industrial waste into the streams and bayous in instances of corporate abuse.

The ravages of Louisiana’s largely unfettered extraction industry have destroyed an entire way of life. Since before the area was even part of the United States, generations of Cajuns (French Creole-speaking people, descended from 18th-century Acadians deported from Canada by the British), had been able to make a living from the land and water. Even today, older residents recall the days when they were able to live a self-sufficient life, growing beans and vegetables on their land and catching fish, turtles, and frogs from the nearby bayous.

But with the arrival of companies like Firestone and Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) in the years after World War II, industrial pollution poisoned the land and water. Instead of aquatic wildlife, the bayous began to yield industrial waste and bits of rubber from the tire plants. Agriculture and husbandry became impossible when farm animals began to die after drinking the fouled water.

Republican politicians and their pro-business, laissez-faire ideology have given these polluting companies a free hand to poison the drinking water and destroy a once-thriving commercial fishing industry, all in the name of free enterprise. Rather than using the power of government to rein in the reckless and dangerous behavior of the private sector, Louisiana Republicans—and the large majority of voters who support them—instead castigate “Big Government” and “overregulation” as the source of the state’s problems.

Example #2: Worker Exploitation

The petrochemical industry is also well-known for its ruthless exploitation of employees. One longtime Louisiana petrochemical worker-turned-environmental activist named Lee Sherman recounts numerous industrial accidents in which he saw coworkers gruesomely maimed or killed. The company for which he worked offered minimal compensation to these workers or their families, clear examples of corporate exploitation.

The exploitation went even further. Sherman was frequently tasked with illegally dumping barrels of chlorinated hydrocarbon into a marsh, which fed into the water supply for wildlife and nearby residents. After he became chronically ill from years of exposure to dangerous chemicals, Sherman was fired by the company for alleged “absenteeism”—but the real reason, according to Sherman, was their desire to avoid paying his mounting medical bills. 

Example #3: Cancer Clusters

Beyond just the loss of fishing and agriculture, Louisiana’s environmental degradation has also brought soaring rates of illness and death to state residents due to corporate abuse.

A well-documented “cancer cluster,” Louisiana boasts the ignominious distinction of having America’s second-highest cancer rate for men, and the fifth-highest male death rate for cancer. One resident of Bayou D’Inde named Harold Areno (who lives downstream from where Lee Sherman dumped his barrels of chemicals) has seen his sisters, brother-in-law, mother, and neighbors all die of cancer in their forties and fifties (he and his wife are themselves cancer survivors).

Notably, no members of the family from earlier generations developed cancer. The wave of sickness and death began with the arrival of industry.

Corporate exploitations have several clear examples, but can take other forms.

How Corporate Exploitation & Abuse Causes Suffering

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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