top of page

Does Commerce Secretary Candidate Ursula Burns Support Child Labor in Africa? Someone Should Ask Her

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

By Thomas Neuburger

Buried amid the coverage of yet another horrible person being considered for a Biden cabinet post — in this case, ex-Xerox CEO Ursula Burns for Secretary of Commerce — is a nugget that's so stunning in magnitude, so steeped in irony, and yet so common an egg in the nest of neoliberal thinking as to be entirely unremarkable.

But let's remark on it anyway.

Ex-Xerox CEO Ursula Burns for Commerce Secretary?

The Commerce secretary coverage comes from Alexander Sammon writing at the American Prospect:

The “apolitical” option, as Axios calls it, seems to be former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. As a woman of color, she would satisfy the Biden administration’s diversity mandate; and as a onetime executive, decidedly pro-corporate, she would satisfy the one area where there is no taste for diversity. ...
But adding Burns to the mix would be anything but apolitical. Given her legacy from her time atop Xerox, Burns could very well undermine Biden’s credibility on a number of his most important priorities, and bring with her a ton of baggage from some of the most high-profile scandals in the corporate world.

Sammon goes on to detail the horror stories, including Xerox's acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) in 2009. What is ACS? Among other things, ACS is these guys (emphasis added):

ACS ... had as part of their portfolio one of the most notorious student loan servicer operations in the country. Just this year, the American Federation of Teachers and the Student Borrower Protection Center released a scathing report detailing over five million ACS servicing errors that helped undermine the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, intended to allow graduates who pursued public-service jobs in government or nonprofits to have their loan balances canceled after ten years of payments. “Rather than alleviating the debt burden of students committed to public service, ACS ran roughshod over them, making careless errors and pushing them into forbearance and onerous repayment plans,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten in a statement.
The failure of PSLF exacerbated the already shameful state of the student loan crisis, after nearly every single person who applied for federal loan forgiveness was denied. Thirteen years after its establishment, over 98 percent of PSLF applications from teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants have been rejected, good for a 1.7 percent approval rate. Student loan debt nationwide now tops an incomprehensible $1.6 trillion.

Biden already lacks credibility on the student debt problem, having worked so hard to exacerbate it. Appointing someone who helped make it even worse would be a masterstroke of insensitivity.

Ursula Burns, Nestlé and Child Labor in Africa

Sammon details much else that would be wrong with a Burns appointment, but that's not the nugget I wanted to remark on. This is:

And remember that recent controversy that had former Obama lawyer Neal Katyal arguing before the Supreme Court that a company shouldn’t be held responsible for using child labor? Katyal was defending Burns’s Nestlé in that hearing.

After Xerox, Burns found seats on three corporate boards that no one should sit on ever: Uber, a Saudi-funded scam, a "long con" that will never be profitable until public transportation is destroyed and all cars driven by AI; Exxon, a massive carbon pollution manufacturer that has known since the Seventies that its profit would come from the disaster it creates; and Nestlé, one of the most predatory corporations in the world.

How predatory is Nestlé? Search on the phrase "nestle evil" to get a sense of the range of its deeds. The largest food company in the world, Nestlé steals and sells water while simultaneously promoting the idea that water as a human right is an "extreme" position to hold, even though the U.N. holds it. And despite its propaganda to the contrary, Nestlé uses child labor in Africa to harvest cocoa for its signature chocolate products.

Was the Obama administration on board with all these practices? We can't be sure. But former Obama solicitor general Neal Katyal recently argued before the Supreme Court that Nestlé should be protected from a U.S. lawsuit alleging this practice. From an excellent piece by Alex Pareene:

In his argument before the court, [former Solicitor General] Katyal espoused a view of corporate immunity so expansive that even the conservative judges seemed skeptical. If you took him at his word, he was effectively asking the Supreme Court to make it impossible for any foreigner to sue any company for any harm done to them, up to and including kidnapping and enslavement.

These are the children Nestlé is exploiting:

Everyone involved in enabling this practice should be vilified to the end of their days, including and especially businesswoman Ursula Burns. This is hypocrisy steeped in irony, yet so common in neoliberal circles as to be entirely unremarkable. What a world.

(To watch the film the image was taken from, click here.)


(I've launched a Substack site to greet the post-Trump era. You can get more information here and here. If you decide to sign up — it's free — my thanks to you!)

bottom of page