HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc19-21
16. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what evidence he has about the payment of sub-poverty line wages outside South Africa by United Kingdom multinational companies.

Sir G. Howe

United Kingdom companies are not required to inform the Government of wages paid by them to employees outside the United Kingdom.

Mr. Meacher

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that Pfizer and Hoffmann-La Roche—both United Kingdom-based multinational companies—which sell some of their chemical products to the National Health Service at 40 times the foreign sale price, also pay their chemical workers in Turkey at one-ninth the rate of their American chemical workers, which is well below the poverty line? Is it moral for the British Government to trade with companies that so blatantly engage in labour exploitation?

Sir G. Howe

It is depressing, but it is a little difficult to have detailed knowledge of the rates of wages paid to Turkish employees of two international companies. The House is investigating the position of United Kingdom companies in South Africa, and that is one distinct question on which informed opinion can focus. The question of pricing policy by Roche and other commercial companies is primarily looked at—and it seems a sensible starting point—from the point of view of whether the National Health Service, which is financed by taxpayers and operates for the benefit of this country, is getting the best bargain that it can in relation to the prices that it pays. Obviously, those concerned with that matter will bear in mind the points of a different nature that have been made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tebbit

My right hon. and learned Friend will know of and welcome, as I do, the expansion of our trade with East European and other Communist countries. Is he able to confirm that we are adequately informed on the question whether any of their companies or organisations with whom we trade employ men at wages which are at about the poverty-line level, or whether any of them are in prison camps working as slave labourers? Why do we not hear some more about that from hon. Gentlemen opposite?

Sir G. Howe

My hon. Friend raises a point of equal importance. There is express statutory provision, dating from the 1957 Act, in relation to foreign prison-made goods being imported into this country. The point made by my hon. Friend illustrates the limits of the jurisdiction of the Government and Parliament in this country, and the limits, which in the last resort it is for the House to decide, of the extent to which we can pursue inquiries of this kind in relation to international trade with countries that are far less willing to disclose information about conditions of employment in their countries than are those with which we deal more regularly, and about which it is much less difficult to make judgments. If we were to run up across the world barriers, of the kind that are logically pressed for by hon. Gentlemen opposite, we should find ourselves in a difficult international trading situation.

Mr. Benn

The answers given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman to this and earlier Questions underline the legitimate anxieties felt in this country and many others about the power of multinational corporations. They can overcharge—and in the case of Roche they have overcharged—the British National Heath Service for drugs. They have power to invest abroad, employ people at low wages and then compete unfairly against British workers. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirmed earlier, he does not even have statutory power to enforce the provision of information by such companies. In the Green Paper on companies legislation, will the Government please give serious attention to the power of the multinationals that bring some benefits but also tend to erode national sovereignty and affect both workers and organisations in the countries where they operate?

Sir G. Howe

Anyone who tries to take an intelligent look at the world trading scene is aware of the position of multinational trading companies, but in looking at the situation one must take account of the extent to which they provide a wide range of investment, sometimes in this country and sometimes in the form of British multinational companies being able to invest abroad to increase the capacity of our country to export. The factors raised by the right hon. Gentleman ought not to be overlooked, but I think that they have to be set alongside other factors, including the power—often the impenetrable power—of State trading monopolies in countries where it is impossible to discover anything at all. These things must be kept in perspective.