Essential Workers: COVID-19 and Racial Equity

On February 19th, SGI’s quarterly member webinar examined how the engagement season will be shaped by the pandemic and racial justice issues. We are grateful that Corey Klemmer of Domini Impact Investments and Hanna Lucal of Open MIC joined us to enrich our conversation. We had some great interaction in the question and answer period, and we added some resources that were shared in the webinar’s chat feature to a final slide in the slide deck.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans were shocked at the sight of empty shelves in stores as global supply chains sputtered to keep up with the demand for a variety of products. The fragility of these supply chains has suddenly become evident to a lot of Americans who expect them to always operate seamlessly. Global supply chains connect people worldwide, from garment workers in Bangladesh to consumers in the United States. They are built to be ruthlessly efficient, manufacturing and delivering goods exactly when and where they are needed. The ability to move quickly and seamlessly across the globe also helps companies find cheaper labor or other opportunities to make products more cheaply. While this system may be good for corporate owners and supply chain managers, it takes a toll on workers. In the face of COVID-19, poultry workers literally put their life on the line every time they punch in to work. The opportunity of 2021 is to place worker dignity at the center of supply chain transformation plans.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also created an unprecedented urgency for a more genuinely diverse and inclusive workforce. The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted devastating effects on the U.S. economy, with job losses, especially concentrated among women, minorities, and low-wage workers. It illustrates the systemic racism that lives in our financial institutions. Corporations are making statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but statements are easy. Ensuring that People of Color are hired, paid, promoted, and retained equitably is less so. We cannot allow the corporate response to be merely words. Together, we can compel action.

Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Corey and Hannah in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.

Writing letters is easy; Will BlackRock act on it?

Today, BlackRock’s Larry Fink issued his 2021 letter to CEOs. As usual, the New York Times devoted significant coverage to it. Again, we at SGI are heartened by Fink’s words. I’ll call your attention to this nugget near the letter’s conclusion:

Questions of racial justice, economic inequality, or community engagement are often classed as an “S” issue in ESG conversations. But it is misguided to draw such stark lines between these categories. For example, climate change is already having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities around the world – is that an E or an S issue? What matters is less the category we place these questions in, but the information we have to understand them and how they interact with each other. Improved data and disclosures will help us better understand the deep interdependence between environmental and social issues.

I loved this line: “And now, business leaders and boards will need to show great courage and commitment to their stakeholders.”

At the same time, I am reminded of the “Peanuts” comic. Time and again, Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she will hold a football while he runs up to kick it. Initially, Charlie Brown usually refuses to kick it, not trusting Lucy. Then, Lucy says something to persuade Charlie Brown to trust her. Charlie Brown runs up to kick the ball, but at the very last moment before he can kick it, Lucy removes the ball. As a consequence, Charlie Brown flies into the air, falls down on his back, and hurts himself.

We’ve seen these letters each year from Fink, and we have written about our reactions to them before. Nonetheless, when it comes to voting their proxies, BlackRock, like Lucy, yanks the ball away (See: BlackRock voted against climate resolutions over 80% of the time in 2020). To be honest, I hope that I am wrong. I pray for an abundance of “great courage and commitment.” Time will tell if 2021 will be any different.

COVID-19 and Racial Justice: Pharmacy Deserts

We know that our healthcare system does not work well for those who are poor. Studies report that socioeconomic disparities in health care are significantly worse in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries. These disparities have daily real-world implications. Over the last ten months, we’ve seen how those who are poor are more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and, ultimately, to die from it, especially people of color.

The pharmaceutical industry deserves praise for producing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines so quickly. However, drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them. Those pharma companies have been pursuing monopolistic deals with the fruits of taxpayer-funded innovation, rather than volunteering to share their know-how to get those vaccines to everyone, everywhere, at the lowest cost possible and as quickly as possible. This is why SGI members joined other investors in asking pharma companies to take into account public financial support for development and manufacture of vaccines or therapeutics for COVID-19 when making decisions on access and prices.

Similar to the term “food deserts,” research has also disclosed a phenomena of “pharmacy deserts” in the journal Health Affairs. Frankly, it is foreign to my experience. I live within ten blocks of four pharmacies: a CVS, two Walgreens, and an independent pharmacy. Meanwhile, neighborhoods in cities like Chicago increasingly are places where people are unable to fill medical prescriptions locally because their drugstores have closed or will not accept Medicaid. A pharmacy desert is the result of basic economics: because pharmacies get the lowest reimbursements for filling Medicaid prescriptions, companies are more likely to close stores in low-income, minority neighborhoods and open them in wealthy ones.

According to new research published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, racial disparities in mortality are not improving despite an increasing awareness of the problem and a focus on social determinants of health. Apart from COVID-19, Black mortality remains far higher than white mortality in America’s 30 largest cities. Add in COVID-19, and Axios reports that, in the U.S., 22,000 Black and Latino Americans would still be alive today if their coronavirus mortality rates were the same as white people.

Systemic racism has found its way into vaccine distribution as well. To address these concerns, Dallas County, Texas aimed to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine doses to “the county’s most vulnerable ZIP codes, primarily in communities of color.” The plan drew the ire of state officials who threatened to cut off the county’s vaccine supply, and county officials quickly retreated. In Dallas, as in other major Texas cities, distribution sites are more commonly located in white neighborhoods, and early data showed that Dallas County had distributed most of its shots to residents of whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.  Black and brown people who are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus are also least likely to get vaccinated. There are lots of reasons why, but access to the internet to sign up for shots, and access to pharmacies and hospitals to receive the shots, are significant issues.

To beat this virus as quickly as possible, the Biden administration, state and local governments, and corporations must work collaboratively to prioritize the distribution of the vaccine to those communities most at-risk, especially people of color. 

SGI Board Elects Officers for 2021

SGI  is pleased to announce the election of board officers for the year 2021. These include:

  • President: Cindy Bohlen, Riverwater Partners
  • Treasurer: Peg Groth, Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother International Finance, Inc.
  • Secretary: Ann Roberts, Dana Investment Advisors

Both Peg and Ann are continuing in their positions as officers. Cindy Bohlen, Chief Mindfulness Officer at Riverwater Partners, leads the firm’s sustainability practice and does primary research for the health care and technology sectors. Cindy has prior research experience at Robert W. Baird and M&I Investment Management. She added a sustainability lens to her investment process while working for another private firm and for a local foundation. Cindy earned a B.B.A. in Finance and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In addition, she is a CFA® charterholder. Cindy joined SGI’s board this year.

The outgoing board president is Dan Tretow, Director of Financial Services in the International Office,  School Sisters of St. Francis. Dan, who served as board president from 2018 through 2020 remains on the SGI board and will participate in the development committee.

Frank Sherman, executive director of SGI, said, “I congratulate Cindy on her election as president of the SGI Board of Directors.  Her commitment to ESG issues and her professional experience are great assets to SGI.  We value her leadership at SGI and know that she will help guide us in our work for people and planet.”

The entire team at SGI thanks Dan for his service as president. Under his leadership, we have grown in members, hired staff, expanded our corporate engagements, and commenced our annual conference. We are grateful for Dan’s generous service to our organization since the 1980s and to the School Sisters of St Francis, one of our founding members.

The SGI board is elected by SGI members in staggered three-year terms. Board members elected in the October 11th member meeting were: Caroline Boden (Mercy Investment Services), Ed Fitzpatrick (The Fitzpatrick Group, Wells Fargo), Ann Roberts (Dana Investment Advisors), and Sr. Carmen Schnyder  (Sisters of the Precious Blood). The board officers are elected by the board, as per the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. To learn more about SGI’s board, click here

Supreme Court to weigh in on Child Slavery

Today (December 2nd) is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

Yesterday, in a cruel irony, the U.S. Supreme Court heard consolidated oral arguments in Nestlé USA, Inc v. Doe I, Docket number 19-416 and Cargill, Inc v. Doe I, a consolidated case on U.S. corporations and liabilities for alleged child slave labor violations abroad.

The basic facts of what happened are beyond dispute: six Africans were trafficked out of Mali as children, where they were forced to work long hours on Ivory Coast cocoa farms and locked at night into shacks. Attorneys for the six Africans argued that the companies should have better monitored their cocoa suppliers in West Africa and have liability. The countries of the region grow about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa, and child labor is endemic.

Looking at the docket files for the case, one finds amicus briefs from Coca-Cola, Chevron, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a joint filing for three trade associations (National Confectioners Association, the World Cocoa Foundation, and the European Cocoa Association), all in support of Cargill. As well, the Washington Legal Foundation and the Cato Institute filed amicus briefs in support of the corporations.

Cargill and Nestle selected a lawyer well-known to MSNBC aficionados to represent them: Neal Katyal, a former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, and the creator of an inspiring TED Talk.  Both companies have strongly worded policies against child labor and human trafficking and the like. All of the amicus briefs stated that they abhor child slavery and the corporations actively take steps to eradicate such practices among their suppliers.

The broad outline of the companies’ argument is found in the second page of Katyal and his team’s brief:

Plaintiffs’ brief confirms that all they have alleged (and can allege) is that Nestlé USA lawfully purchased some cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and exercised some generalized supervision. The true wrongdoers are the Malian and Ivorian traffickers, farmers, and overseers who injured Plaintiffs in West Africa.

In other words, the practices of Nestlé, Cargill and, by extension, Chevron, Coca-Cola, and all multi-national corporations with dispersed supply chains are sufficient. The terms of their contracts are clear and exclude child labor, human trafficking, and all forms of modern slavery. Occasionally, they do audits of their suppliers. Isn’t that enough? How can a company be responsible for all the actions of their suppliers?

At issue, according to the briefs, is liability under the Alien Tort Statute, a part of the Judiciary Act of 1789.  It has been enshrined in U.S. law for more than 230 years. To me, the most interesting exchange during the hearing was between Justice Elena Kagan and Katyal (pages 19-21 of the transcript):

JUSTICE KAGAN: Mr. Katyal, is child slavery, not aiding and abetting it but the offense itself, is that a violation of a specific universal and obligatory norm?

KATYAL: We’re — we’re not – yes, I think we’re not challenging that here. It’s just the aiding and abetting.

JUSTICE KAGAN: Okay. So, if that’s right, could a former child slave bring a suit against an individual slaveholder under the ATS?

KATYAL: So they — if it were – if it weren’t extraterritorial and it wasn’t a corporate action, yes.

JUSTICE KAGAN: Yeah, no problem extraterritorial, no problem aiding and abetting, just a straight suit.

KATYAL: Correct.

JUSTICE KAGAN: Okay. And could the same child — former child slave in the same circumstances bring a suit against 10 slaveholders?

KATYAL: You know, if they – if they met the — you know, the requirements under the — the law, yeah, sure. I mean, if they —

JUSTICE KAGAN: Okay. So if —

KATYAL: — if it was a plausible allegation.

JUSTICE KAGAN: — if you could bring a suit against 10 slaveholders when those 10 slaveholders form a corporation, why can’t you bring a suit against the corporation?

KATYAL: Because the corporation requires an individual form of liability under a norm, a specific norm, of — of – under international law, which doesn’t exist here. I think Sosa in Footnote —

JUSTICE KAGAN: I — I — I guess what I’m asking is, like, what sense does this make? This goes back to Justice Breyer’s question. What sense does this make? You have a suit against 10 slaveholders, 10 slaveholders decide to form a corporation specifically to remove liability from themselves, and now you’re saying you can’t sue the corporation?

Justice Kagan was pointing toward an amicus brief from the Yale Law School Center for Global Legal Challenges filed in support of the six Africans. In the brief, Oona Hathaway sets forth a compelling argument that:

Slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking constitute the worst forms of human exploitation. The law of nations has long prohibited these practices in specific, universal, and obligatory terms. Indeed, these prohibitions are among the most longstanding, deeply rooted prohibitions in international human rights law. Each of these prohibitory norms of international law extends, moreover, to natural and juridical [corporations] persons alike. (p. 33)

Citizens United v FEC decided that corporations are people, when it comes to political spending, but corporations are now arguing that they are not people when it comes to child labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery.

I won’t pretend to know how this court will decide the case, but it should go without saying that aiding and abetting slavery is wrong, whether it is done by an individual or a corporation.

Webinar: Fossil Fuels: Engage or Divest

On Monday, November 9th, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank recognized climate as a risk. Investors of all types can no longer afford to be on auto-pilot concerning investments in fossil fuels. This webinar explores two options: active engagement or divestment. We hear from Rob Berridge and Morgan LaManna of Ceres on how the recommendations of the CA 100+ and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) can enhance engagement with companies. We hear from Fr. Peter Bisson, S.J., former provincial of the Canadian Jesuit province. Under his leadership, the province became the first province to divest from fossil fuels shortly after Laudato Si’. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Rob, Morgan, and Fr. Peter in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.

SEC’s rule changes set back transparency and shareholder voice

Today, the SEC approved in a 3-2 party-line vote new rules that severely restrict shareholders’ access to the corporate proxy by limiting the filing of resolutions. These new rules are a consequence of lobbying by powerful industry trade associations that have sought to limit shareholder engagement with corporations on critical environmental, social, and governance issues.

The shareholder resolution process, governed by the SEC’s Rule 14a-8, has been effective for decades and has allowed smaller shareholders who had held at least $2,000 of shares for over one year to file proposals asking companies to consider non-binding proposals that may raise questions of environmental and social impacts of corporate policies and practices, or governance best practices.

Today’s new rules will significantly limit investors’ ability to submit these proposals. The new rules raise the thresholds of ownership both in terms of the number of shares and length of time they must be held. Under the new rule, new purchasers of stock must hold $25,000 in shares for at least a year, or hold $2,000 in shares for at least three years.

As well, the new rules make it much more difficult to refile a proposal that has been voted on. The prior rule required 3% support on a first-year vote, 6% on a second vote, and 10% on a third vote to keep a proposal before a company’s shareholders. Now resubmission will require 5% on a first vote, 15% on a second vote and 25% on a third vote. Emerging issues will be much more difficult to bring to the proxy.

SGI’s executive director, Frank Sherman said, “The choice to approve the new rule aims to fix something that is not broken. A half-century of evidence shows that shareholders have an important voice that companies need to hear. Pioneers like Fr. Mike Crosby have helped companies pay attention to environmental, social, and governance concerns that they were missing. To the detriment of U.S. companies, this rule restricts that important voice.”

In a press release, ICCR executive director, Josh Zinner said: “The new rule guts the existing shareholder proposal process, which has long served as a cost-effective way for shareholders to communicate their priorities and concerns to management, with little economic analysis supporting the needs for these substantial changes. The new rules appear to be based on a wholly unsupported assumption that shareholder proposals are simply a burden to companies with no benefits for companies or non-proponent investors when there is 50 years of evidence to the contrary.”

Over many decades, the shareholder proposal process has served as an efficient way for corporate management and boards to gain a better understanding of shareholder priorities and concerns, particularly those of longer-term shareholders concerned about the long-term value of the companies that they own.  Engagement by shareholders has served as a crucial “early warning system” for companies to identify emerging risks and there are hundreds of examples of companies changing their policies and practices in light of productive engagement with shareowners.

For more information:

  • ICCR’s press release can be found here.
  • Joint letter from investor groups regarding the shifting interpretation of 14a-8 No-Action Challenges can be found here.
  • Case Studies showing the impact of the new rules on shareholder engagement can be found here.
  • For more information on the history of comments submitted to the SEC regarding these rule changes visit ICCR and Shareholder Rights Group
  • See also SEC’s Proposed New Rules Threaten Shareholder Democracy
  • See as well SGI’s formal comment submission to the SEC here.

Sr. Ruth Geraets, PBVM to receive SGI’s 2020 Fr. Mike Crosby Award

Sr. Ruth Geraets, P.B.V.M.

The Board of Seventh Generation Interfaith coalition is pleased to announce that Sister Ruth Geraets of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, SD has been selected to receive the 2020 Fr. Mike Crosby Award. The award will be presented at the SGI member meeting on October 12. The Fr. Mike Crosby Award recognizes a person who has promoted a more just and sustainable world and exemplifies the passion and commitment of our founder, Michael Crosby, O.F.M., Cap.

“We are so happy to honor my dear friend Sister Ruth”, said SGI Board Chair Dan Tretow. “She worked closely with the SGI staff and other members in engaging several companies to operate more just and sustainably.”

“Ruth’s dedication to those most vulnerable guides her shareholder advocacy”, added Frank Sherman, SGI Executive Director. “At the same time, her cheerful and gracious attitude creates common ground with corporate management. This is why Sister Ruth has been so effective in her work with companies. Father Mike would be very pleased with this well-deserved recognition.”

Sister Ruth entered the Presentation Convent in August 1961. She earned a Bachelor Degree in Elementary Education and Mathematics at Northern State University and went on to obtain a Masters of Arts Degree in Pastoral Studies from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. For 21 years, Sister Ruth taught in Catholic Schools in MN and SD. Her ministry then led her to McDowell County, WV, where she worked with Catholic Community Services serving with those made poor as coal companies were leaving the area. Her compassionate heart led her back to South Dakota where she directed shelters for abused and neglected women and children on the Cheyenne River Reservation. She was Coordinator of Formation and Director of Novices 1999-2011. In January 2008, she was appointed Congregational Treasurer, a position she still holds today.

Sister Ruth became involved with SGI in 2008, serving on the Board for the past 6 years. Her Presentation Congregation has a particular interest in Care of the Earth and the Rights of Women and Children.

Please join us in congratulating Sister Ruth.

Webinar: Positive Screens: Going Beyond the Negative

On Friday, August 21st, SGI’s quarterly webinar addressed adopting positive portfolio screens. Many portfolios rely simply upon negative screens, the exclusion of certain companies from investment consideration based on social or environmental criteria. A negative screen, for instance, can preclude investing in tobacco, gambling, alcohol or weapons manufacturing. John Mueller of Dana Investment Advisors and Ariane de Vienne of Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) discuss how one might view and implement positive selection criteria from the perspective of the asset manager and the asset owner. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of John and Ariane in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.

2020 Trafficking in Persons Report

The U.S. State Department today (June 25th) released the latest edition of the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report). (We wrote about the 2019 edition here and 2018 here.)

We are particularly pleased that the 2020 edition recognizes the efforts of ICCR:

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)
based in the United States uses a multi-faith approach from a
different angle. A coalition of more than 300 global institutional
investors with more than $500 billion in managed assets, it
uses the power of shareholder advocacy to engage companies
to identify, mitigate, and address social and environmental
risks associated with corporate operations, including human
trafficking. ICCR members call on companies they hold to
adopt policies banning human trafficking as a key part of
their core business polices, and to train their personnel and
suppliers to safeguard against these risks throughout their
supply chains. ICCR’s Statement of Principles & Recommended
Practices for Confronting Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery
provides guidance to companies to protect their supply chains
from sex and labor trafficking.

2020 Trafficking in Persons Report (p. 25)

SGI members prioritize this work, and this recognition from the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons confirms the efficacy of our efforts with corporations.

David Schilling, ICCR’s senior program director for human rights, said, “Whether it is workers trafficked into forced labor in a factory in Bangladesh or on a plantation in Indonesia; whether it is women trafficked for sex in the US or children exploited on-line, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility’s members utilize their role as shareholders in a range of companies to promote policies and practices to end modern slavery. The framework we use is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which defines what it means for a company to respect human rights, especially for persons made vulnerable by economic systems that marginalize and exploit.”

Pat Zerega, of Mercy Investment Services and chair of the Human Trafficking- Worker Rights leadership team, said:

For several decades, ICCR has been a leader on supply chain issues, and advocacy work on trafficking brought a new aspect to corporate dialogues. Mercy Investment Services’ involvement since the start of this effort includes working domestically with the travel, transportation and tourism industries around corporations training staff to spot trafficking. Resources such as the Celebration without Exploitation toolkit provided the groundwork for investors.

ICCR expanded its focus to labor trafficking, including the development of a Principles for Confronting Human Trafficking and investor tools for issues of ethical recruitment and, more recently, the Investor Alliance for Human Rights resources. These tools enhance the ability of all shareholders to understand the issues and address corporations.

Ranking governments based on their perceived efforts to acknowledge and combat human trafficking, each year’s TIP report includes tiers of troubled countries. The report assigns countries into three tiers. Tier 1 consists of “countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” Below Tier 1, Tier 2 contains countries that may not meet the TPVA standards, “but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.” A “Tier 2 Watch List” consists of countries that are similar to Tier 2, but have other issues, such as an increasing number of trafficking cases or a lack of improvement on previously-implemented anti-trafficking efforts. Tier 3 countries are those “whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

The 2020 report underscores longstanding concern about China, especially in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The report also identified U.S. agricultural workers as particularly vulnerable. As well, the report acknowledges that its compilation was hindered by COVID-19, even as COVID-19 makes more people vulnerable to trafficking. A recent webinar put it well: “In many places, human traffickers, sadly, are the first responders to the pandemic.” While grateful for the recognition from the State Department, no doubt, we ICCR members must renew and redouble our efforts.