Tax dodging and The Birth of Empire

Ruth Kelly

Programme Policy Manager

I’ve always thought that the East India Company might tell us something about how the global tax system works. Watching Dan Snow’s recent BBC programmes, The Birth of Empire, made me realise that the Company had an even more active role in the tax system than I had imagined.

Campaigners call for an end to tax dodging

The story of the Company is a mix of fabrics and famine; corruption and colonialism; trade and taxes. When they first arrived in India, East India Company employees were customs-tax-paying traders like any other. Mughal emperors allowed them to set up factories and trading posts in tiny settlements that would later become Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. In return, the emperors got access to lucrative British export markets.


Campaign ships calling for an end to tax dodgingCampaigners call for an end to tax dodging

East India Company as Tax Collectors

The early eighteenth century was a time of change. In 1717, the then emperor waived customs duties for Company trade. But by that point, the empire was disintegrating and regional rulers were becoming more powerful.

Decades of contested power and Anglo-French conflict followed before the East India Company won Bengal for Britain in 1765. In a dramatic shift, Company employees suddenly assumed the role of tax collectors for Bengal and later for most of the rest of India. As hopeless as they were at playing this role, the revenue they did manage to collect doubled the value of East India Company shares.

The origins of modern tax law

By the twentieth century, the East India Company's military exploits had brought it to near-bankruptcy and it had long stopped trading. But it remained one of the first and most iconic multilateral corporations. The way the Company operated must have influenced WWI Allies as they developed rules for taxing companies doing business in more than one country.

If tax is conceived as a way of paying for public goods and redistributing wealth, the current international system doesn’t make a lot of sense. If it is understood as a way of funding colonial expansion, it all begins to fall into place.

The East India Company’s monopoly over trade with the East Indies was originally granted because it could loan the Crown large sums of money to pay for colonial wars. Later, its monopoly position was tolerated because of the customs income its trade brought in. Over the years, the Company paid varying amounts of tax to the British authorities. But the notion that it should also pay tax in Company-controlled British India would have been nonsensical.

These days, most individuals and domestic companies pay most of their income tax to the governments that provide the services they use. This doesn't hold for companies operating in more than one country.

Rather than paying taxes to help fund the infrastructure and services they use to help them make money, multinationals pay most of their corporate income tax wherever they originally come from. Countries usually agree to divvy up taxing rights, allowing the host country to levy tax on some proportion of multinational profits. But the underlying assumption behind those agreements is that any tax revenue they don’t agree to share is collected by the multinational's country of origin.

The impact on the global South

Foreign investment has enormous potential, if Southern governments can put in place infrastructure and services to make it work for their citizens. It seems ridiculous that the current international tax system leaves them without the resources they need to make that investment. But if we adopt a colonial worldview, it makes perfect sense that multinationals pay most tax to the country whose flag they fly.

tax, tax dodging

Rachel Noble

Women's Rights Policy Adviser

Life inside Cambodia textiles factories has been in the spotlight since 40 garment workers were shot at a protest in January (five of them fatally). So what happens when the people who make our clothes, get dressed up in the items they produce – and demand their rights? ActionAid UK's Rachel Noble visited Cambodia's capital to find out.

Garment workers taking to the catwalk in fashion show protest of their low pay and working conditions

Pumping music, flashing lights, exquisitely made-up women in killer heels strutting down the catwalk: but these weren’t models donning the latest haute couture, but workers from some of Phnom Penh’s 330 export garment factories in the clothes they produce for global high-street brands.

The event, Beautiful clothes: Ugly Reality, was organised by ActionAid Cambodia’s local Safe Cities programme partner, Workers Information Centre (WIC). It sent a powerful message directly from the workers - 80 to 90% of whom are women - to the Cambodian government and the multibillion dollar brands, that their exploitation has got to stop.

Their demands, displayed on placards paraded by the women and voiced in a subsequent Q&A with the media, include raising the monthly minimum wage to $160 (£95.44) to afford them a decent and dignified standard of living, and an end to the short-term contracts that deny women maternity leave and expose them to effective dismissal if they fall pregnant.

Other demands include an end to forced overtime; to be treated with respect and not subjected to violence; opportunities for higher education.

They have also demanded 'rice not bullets', a slogan referring to the poor nutritional status of women workers, who often cannot afford sufficient food because of their low pay. This, combined with the long hours in stifling, cramped conditions, has led to mass faintings and a range of health issues, while the privatised healthcare system means treatment is often beyond reach. 

Garment workers campaigning against dangerous working conditions

It is also a call to the government to lift the ban on public gatherings and to end its brutality against civilians, not least since 40 workers were shot by security forces, five of them fatally, during strikes over poor pay in the garment sector in January 2014.  

Twenty-three male workers were detained and released 5 months later, on 30 May, on suspended sentences following a trial that was decried as a sham by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

Poor living conditions

Indeed, the lives of Phnom Penh’s women garment workers are a far cry from the glamour of the catwalk or the image of a ‘cool, carefree lifestyle’ the big brands seek to convey. Mostly young migrants from poor rural areas, these women struggle to cover their basic living costs on the current $100 (£59.65) monthly minimum wage, forcing them to work excessive overtime up to six days a week.

Such abysmal wages leave them no choice but to rent tiny rooms, often shared with 10-15 others. Access to water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare, or education for their children is limited. Transport links to the factories are poor, especially late at night. Returning home on foot after dark along poorly lit streets means they often face violence and harassment.

Concerned about their brand image following the shocking events of January, along with supply disruptions from repeated strikes, have prompted 30 of the major brands to join up with international trade union federations, such as IndustriALL, to condemn the violence and call for the release of the demonstrators

Cambodia's garment workers demand decent work and dignity from big brands

They have also engaged in talks with the government about raising the minimum wage, with initial reports indicating they would support an increase.  Garments and footwear account for a staggering 80% of Cambodia’s exports, with shipments to the US and EU – its biggest markets  - valued at £4.1 billion in 2013. This gives the brands immense power and leverage in influencing such decisions.

Women workers demanding change

While it is positive and encouraging to see the brands responding in this way, the power they wield is, of course, a huge part of the problem. The constant downward pressure they exert on prices paid to the factories for vast clothing volumes in a context of fierce competition between South Asia’s garment exporting countries - many of which have dismal records for human rights and gender discrimination - inevitably leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions for these female-dominated sectors. 

So while brand profits and CEO salaries soar, the business model these companies follow - enabled by the weak regulations and free trade policies pushed by richer governments and multilateral donor agencies - serves to further entrench the economic inequality already endured by poor women in Cambodia and other developing countries.

Garment workers campaigning for decent working contitions and a living wage

However, as the WIC fashion show and wider events in Cambodia show, women and men are increasingly standing up to this exploitation, while engendering a clear vision of a more equitable future. A statement issued by the garment workers at the event read:

“We believe that our unity of our struggle is the key battle against the oppressors and [will] create a better economic model which is a more equitable distribution of wealth… Our unity will create a better path and society so that our children and our children’s children may be free from oppression, exploitation and inhumane treatment”.

Natasha Adams

Tax Campaign Manager

A room full of contractors, lobbyists & officials doing a "celebratory circle dance" for renewable energy. Sounds pretty unlikely? Its the latest stunt from activist pranksters The Yes Men - creative activism at it's best. 

"Benedict Waterman" & "Bana Slowhorse" dance with security contractors

If you haven't heard of The Yes Men you should definitely check them out. Headed by 'Mike Bonano' & 'Andy Bichlbaum' they're a loose knit global network of 'identity correcting' activists. They impersonate entities they dislike, like corporates & decision making bodies, often starting with a spoof website. When hapless researchers mistake their spoof websites for the real thing and invite them for media interviews or to speak at conferences, the Yes Men are happy to oblige. 

Operation Second Thanks

This latest stunt started with "Benedict Waterman", posing as an official from the US Department of Energy, announcing a revolutionary new energy plan to transition the US grid to 100% renewable energy by 2030, and giving ownerhip of this energy to Native American nations (as reparations for genocide).

Waterman was followed by a speech from "Bana Slowhorse" claiming to be from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (actually Gitz Crazyboy, a youth worker from the Athabascan Chippewyan First Nations, whose land includes the Alberta Tar Sands). 

Then they got them to dance!

The audience attending the Homeland Security Conference at which they were speaking included a retired Navy Admiral, an aspiring Republican Congressman, lobbyists and security contractors. These people not only loudly applaued the speeches - they joined in with a "traditional" circle dance to celebrate sustainable energy. And they got many of the audience wearing 'native headbands' with little windmills decorated with the American flag stuck in them. Amazing.

Want to know more about The Yes Men?

The Yes Men have released two films of their excellent activist stunts and pranks, and they're currently finishing their third: 'The Yes Men Are Revolting', which will feature Operation Second Thanks. They've also created the Yes Lab which is developing an Action Switchboard to help progressive organisations develop creative actions all over the world.

Activism doesn't have to be dry 

There are loads of creative ways to make your point, create awareness, get media attention and push for change. ActionAid isn't involved with The Yes Men in any way, and obviously we campaign on different things - we've just been inspired by their work. We're already trying out some new ideas with our tax justice walking tour Show me the Money. To share inspiration and bring more creativity into UK activism at ActionAid and beyond, we're hosting an event to discuss performance and activism in our London office. We'll have speakers, films & plenty of time to share ideas:

>> Join us for an evening of Activism and Performance: 
Tuesday June 24th 6:30 - 8:30pm in the ActionAid London office

Photo: The Yes Men


Murray Worthy

Tax Justice Campaign Manager

Today, over 200 activists from ActionAid Zambia are staging a march to the offices of copper mining company KCM, owned by the UK-listed mining giant Vedanta, in protest over allegations of tax dodging by the company.

ActionAid Zambia demonstration against KCM

They’re demanding the company comes clean on the profits it makes in Zambia and are calling on the government to audit the company’s operations and recover any unpaid taxes.

The controversy in Zambia erupted after a video of Vedanta’s Executive Chairman Anil Agarwal was released on YouTube, apparently bragging to a trade conference about the huge profits Vedanta makes from the KCM mine.

In the video, Agarwal said “We took over the company. It's been 9 years, and since then, every year it is giving us a minimum of US$500 million plus US$1 billion every year… it has been continuously giving back.”

The Executive Chairman’s comments stand in sharp contrast to Vedanta’s own claims that KCM was making only a minimal profit.

If Agarwal’s claims of KCM’s profitability are true it would appear the company has either been hiding its true profits from the Zambian Revenue Authority or shifting them out of the country, avoiding potentially huge sums in tax.

Vedanta have since claimed that Agarwal’s comments were taken “out of context” and that “nearly all the returns from KCM have been reinvested back into KCM”, though the company’s statement made no mention of the company’s profitability or tax payments.

The Zambian Revenue Authority has started an investigation, but ActionAid Zambia is calling on the government to go further and carry out a forensic audit of the company. ActionAid is also demanding that Vedanta publicly provide information on their operations and profits. This transparency is vital to reveal whether Agarwal’s claims are true and whether the Zambian government needs to act to recover unpaid taxes from the company

Take action in solidarity with ActionAid Zambia now

Tweet at Vedanta’s Executive Chairman Anil Agarwal demanding the company comes clean on its Zambian profits and whether it has been dodging taxes on one of the world’s poorest countries.


Natasha Adams

Tax Campaign Manager

At ActionAid we've been campaigning for tax justice and exposing how big businesses dodge their taxes since 2008. We've come up with a fun new way to share what we've learnt: 'Show me the Money: A Tax Treasure Hunt'. 

The original idea for the tour came from ActionAid campaigner Tom Barns. He was inspired by the successful Occupy London Tours, which explore London’s financial hubs and their impact of people’s lives. My colleagues and I thought this was a great idea, and when I realised the offices of some of the big corporates we’ve exposed for dodging tax sit in a small area of Mayfair ‘Show me the Money’ was born.

Tom and I have developed the script and we're running the tours together. Here’s what Tom has to say about tax justice and the thinking behind these tours: “Tax avoidance by multinational companies is driving global poverty and inequality. For the world’s poorest countries, maximising tax revenue is massively important. Poor countries need to raise taxes to fund essential services like health and education, and when these things are funded through tax governments are accountable to their own citizens.

In the last few years, tax justice campaigning by ActionAid and others has made good progress, but there is still a long way to go. The point of this tour is for people to understand what’s going on and to feel inspired that there is something everyone can do about tax dodging. Whether you are totally new to tax justice or already campaigning on this, the tour is a fun way to learn and get involved.”

As recent research by Oxfam and the Equality trust shows, tax dodging is driving poverty and inequality all over the world, including here in the UK. We can't address the growing gap between rich and poor without redistributing wealth - tax is an important way of doing this. Our tour explores connections between tax dodging, inequality and poverty, at home and abroad, and gives an introduction to the exciting global and local movements for tax justice.

If you'd like to join us on a tour, we're running them monthly on Thursdays 6pm - 8pm, starting May 22nd.

If the times we're running tours don't suit you, feedback by commenting below or by emailing We'll look at running them at different times if there's enough demand, and we're also thinking about putting the tour online in future so it can be accessible outside London.

Iñigo Macías-Aymar

Aid & Development Alternatives Policy Advisor

After two intense days full of sessions and meetings, the first High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) drew to a close in April 2014.

Civil society organisations meeting ahead of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Mexico

Expectations around concrete results were not very high at the outset of this meeting and the agreed final communique didn't contain many new commitments beyond a set of voluntary initiatives.  Also missing was a clear action plan for speeding up implementation of the commitments made in Busan in 2011.

Yet for many, the event felt surprisingly energetic, full of speeches galvanising the different partners to future action and making strong links to the post 2015 development framework currently being discussed.

Impressive turnout

In terms of numbers, this meeting was certainly impressive, with over 1,500 delegates from 130 countries. This included representatives from regional and national governments, businesses, philanthropic organisations, Civil Society Organisations and parliamentarians.

The main issues covered by the plenary sessions included:

  • progress since the last meeting in Busan in 2011
  • tax and domestic resource mobilisation
  • south-south and triangular cooperation
  • engaging with middle income countries
  • the role of the private sector

International aid is changing

The whole event was grounded in the critical changes taking place around the international aid system. Besides these, 36 additional focus sessions considered other relevant and related issues, some in a quite engaging and results-oriented way.

Topics included the singularities of fragile states, how to fight tax evasion and illicit financial flows and, again, the issue of how to appropriately engage the private sector in development cooperation.

The presence of some big bosses of the main international development bodies (especially the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon) and other well-known “celebrities” of the development world helped give the event a certain glittery feel.

Missed opportunity to measure progress

Despite this stardom, the outcome of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) was less effective than one would expect after so many years of efforts. One of the main reasons for this meeting was to take stock of progress against the commitments made in Busan three years ago.

However, the progress report produced for this meeting was based on less than 50% of total aid as fewer countries reported their figures for 2014 compared to a similar exercise undertaken three years ago. Most of the indicators set at Busan in 2011 have not been monitored against.

How can we hold the different partners accountable without a working monitoring mechanism?

Middle income countries remain sceptical

The other main challenge was getting ‘new’ actors to fully engage with the development effectiveness agenda. (Re)emerging donors, like Brazil, China and India remain sceptical about this process (China and India failed to attend) and their involvement in this meeting appears to have been minor.

Engaging the private sector was undoubtedly one of the main themes of the whole event, culminating in a plenary panel discussion chaired by the UK Secretary of State Justine Greening.

Here and in numerous side events, there was much talk about the need to enhance the role of the private sector in development and development cooperation, as well as to bridge the gap between CSOs and private sector actors.

The private sector needs to do more

Of the big corporations present, clothing manufacturer H&M in particular talked about how they are moving beyond traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices. They are looking for new business and production models that take account of local priorities, whilst creating decent jobs and balancing short and long term investment decisions.

Questions were raised by ActionAid and others about the suitability of aid being used to support, for example, big corporations operating in developing countries.  ActionAid also queried whether aid to and through the private sector was sufficiently in line with agreed aid effectiveness principles.

In the end, the final communiqué refers to the accountability of the private sector in a move towards inclusive and sustainable development. This wording was secured at the last hour and should increase pressure on the private sector to endorse the Busan development cooperation principles as CSOs did in 2011.

Missed opportunity to commit?

This meeting may be remembered as a key step towards a better and stronger global partnership for effective development cooperation. However it could equally be viewed as a missed opportunity to commit to further progress on the core development co operation effectiveness agenda.

Ahead of the next Global Partnership meeting (in two years’ time), ActionAid will keep on working with other interested stakeholders and the new co-chairs of the GPEDC.

We seek to strengthen the partnership and improve aid effectiveness, enabling developing countries to investigate and define their own paths towards development.