Another daily dose of petitions to sign in our in-tray! We begin to worry about a signature’s power to change things. Perhaps it’s getting too easy to sign, and too hard to believe it’s making a difference.
But as we despair about making change, we read that Andrew Forrest has marshalled the world’s religious leaders to abolish slavery.
We didn’t realise that there could be 30 million in modern slavery conditions including sex slavery and forced marriage… but ‘Twiggy’ discovered that slavery was even involved in the supply chains for his own iron-ore company, Fortescue.
In response he has established his ‘Global Freedom Network’, a world-wide joint venture between faith leaders, which is setting its budget and action strategies in Davos next year.
Forrest has already struck a deal in Pakistan: they can have Australian technology to convert lignite coal to diesel if Pakistan brings in laws to tackle slavery and bonded labour!
We are impressed… but since personally we have neither the wealth of ‘Twiggy’ nor the status of the Pope, where does that leave us mere mortals as we reel under the load of the bad news in-tray?
Well, let’s look at the successful anti-slavery action in Brazil for some ideas.
Charcoal, which is used to produce pig iron, uses slave labour in the Amazon.
Nucor is one of the largest steel producers in the US. A group of its shareholders, who were members of the US Inter-faith Centre for Corporate Responsibility (the ICCR), filed shareholder resolutions about their anti-slavery concerns at each of Nucor’s 2008, 2009 and 2010 AGMs.
By 2011 Nucor had agreed to require its Brazilian pig iron suppliers to monitor their supply chains in order to ensure they were not using any pig iron produced by slaves.
And this is not unusual. Every year in the US, hundreds of such resolutions are filed by ICCR members and others, even including US state governments.
The SEC, which is the US equivalent of Australia’s corporate regulator ASIC, actively facilitates this process so that it has become a healthy part of the US corporate democracy.
These lively shareholders tackle all the issues in our in-trays including climate change, worker safety, human rights, corporate governance, political contributions and oppressive regimes.
In addition to their ethical concerns, shareholders can see that they must do this in order to sustain the long-term value of their shares. No wonder they persist when they discover that, after a few years, their resolutions will attract up to 20 per cent support – usually enough to change corporate conduct for the better.
How sad it is that in Australia, despite the bleak research results on the health impacts of asbestos, there were no shareholder resolutions in those early days.
Such action may have prevented many of the hazards now being experienced.
Why, we might ask, is such shareholder democracy so rare in Australia?
The answer is probably to be found in an article now placed on the website of the recently established ACCR (the Australian version of the ICCR).
There, you will read that it is a lot more difficult to place shareholder resolutions in Australia than in most other comparable countries.
For example, you can file a resolution in Canada, New Zealand or the US as a single, concerned shareholder.
In the UK you need 100 shareholders to file a resolution, but at least you still have a right to comment on company policy with your resolution.
In Australia, however, you need both 100 shareholders for the resolution, and you need the company’s board’s permission to comment on company policy.
Needless to say, this is a rarely given.
No wonder shareholders don’t speak up in Australia… and yet there is some movement afoot.
Last month, at the Santos AGM, the Wilderness Society used a resolution to object to potential damage flowing from that company’s mining for coal seam gas in north western NSW.
Progress and scrutiny really are possible, but more work needs to be done.
Recently, it was the story of Peter Greste and his unjust imprisonment which has captured the imagination of the world.
It was the terror of a child who had been a sex slave which captured the imagination of Andrew Forrest.
There are enough stories in our in-trays to capture the imaginations of every one of us.
We have matured to a level of citizenship which requires more action than a signature on a petition.
Surely we should begin to ask our government to cut the shareholder red tape in Australia so that boards can no longer stymy our concerns.
A healthy corporate culture will hear and respond to them so that we become fully-fledged international citizens.
Howard Pender and Jill Sutton are members of the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.
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