“Human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic”

Today, the U.S. State Department issued its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. The annual report is a critical tool to monitor and assess efforts to eliminate human trafficking. As investors, we expect companies, in the course of their human rights due diligence, to act based on the report’s identification of salient risks to people in their operations and supply chain.

“We document 11 countries where the government itself is the trafficker. For example, through forced labor on public works projects or in sectors of the economy that the government feels are particularly important,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference. Those countries include: Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic.”

acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Kari Johnstone

I’d highlight a few things from this year’s report:

  • For the first time, the report draws a link with systemic racism in the United States and abroad, connecting discriminatory policies to the perpetuation of human trafficking. “If we’re serious about ending trafficking in persons, we must also work to combat systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination,” Blinken said.
  • The report underscores the pandemic’s effect on trafficking. Women and children were severely affected by the pandemic, according to the report, along with those facing food and economic insecurity.
  • The chapter concerning the United States recognizes a shortcoming here at home: “There was a continued lack of progress and sustained effort to comprehensively address labor trafficking in the United States.”

The report categorizes countries of the world with regard to their adherence to the standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Each country is tiered according to compliance:

  • Tier 1 (those governments who fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards)
  • Tier 2 (while not fully complying, governments with significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards)
  • Tier 2 watch list (not fully complying along with a significant absolute number of trafficking victims, or a failure to increase efforts, or a determination that the country is in fact committed to making significant progress in the coming year)
  • Tier 3 (those governments who do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so)
  • Special cases (countries where a civil or humanitarian crisis makes gaining information difficult).

Remember that tier 1, which includes the United States, is simply compliance with the minimum standards. A tier 3 designation means that the U.S. can restrict assistance or withdraw support for the country at global funding organizations like the International Monetary Fund. This year, the State Department downgraded Malaysia and Guinea-Bissau to Tier 3.

The report intends to offer “homework” to governments based on their tier. The image above lists the countries of the tier 2 watch list, tier 3, and special case categories. The report includes a country by country analysis of human trafficking.

To read about a previous year’s TIP Report, please see the 2020 edition here and the 2019 here.

Follow the Money

Multiple crises over the past year reminded us that our global economy and our democracies are unjust and fragile. With decades of lobbying and political spending, companies have contributed to the breakdown of trust in the system by distorting elections, policymaking, law enforcement, and citizens’ ability to hold power to account.

Why do industries like meatpacking enjoy little oversight under both Democrat and Republican administrations? A recent report from the nonprofit advocacy group Feed the Truth suggests a disquieting answer. The report documents how the largest companies in the U.S. food system invest a significant sum in lobbying and campaign donations, all but guaranteeing a friendlier regulatory environment.

Corporate political spending and lobbying are possibly the major factors obstructing progress on critical policy issues including the climate crisis, corporate tax loopholes, fossil fuel subsidies, pharmaceutical pricing, minimum wage, worker rights, and youth tobacco use. Companies impede legislators and regulators from acting on evidence and for the common good. The 2010 Citizens United court ruling only exasperated corporate political influence.

Investors try to address this. For example, SGI members led or co-filed 10 political spending or lobbying resolutions.

When It comes to political spending on elections, we rely on guidance from the Center for Political Accountability (CPA). CPA, collaborating with the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research and Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a model code of conduct. They apply that code and produce an annual report on political spending disclosure.

Capturing information on corporate lobbying is more difficult. Generally, it comes in three streams:

  1. Corporations directly employ lobbyists for matters of concern on the federal, state, and local level. The laws regarding disclosure vary in each jurisdiction making it difficult to track. For example, e-cigarette maker Juul admitted to Congress that it lobbies in 48 states, but try to gather all that data on your own.
  2. Corporations also make payments to trade associations that lobby on their behalf without specific disclosure or accountability. The US Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1.6 billion since 1998.
  3. Corporations make payments to 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits and 527 political organizations, often referred to as “dark money,” that can create legal and reputational risk for companies. Ohio utility FirstEnergy is under investigation for funneling $60 million through a dark money 501(c)(4) group called Generation Now that was used for bribery. In another example, the Rule of Law Defense Fund is a social welfare group that helped organize the protest before the January 6th riots and is an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

While corporate and traditional PAC direct donations to politicians have strict limits, company payments to trade associations and 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits for lobbying have no restrictions. This means companies can give unlimited amounts to third-party groups that spend millions on lobbying and undisclosed grassroots activity. Thus, shareholder proposals for lobbying disclosure capture indirect spending through trade associations or social welfare groups.

The CPA-Zicklin Index found that, among companies listed in S&P 500, only 18% fully disclose their contributions to 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, only 24% fully disclose their contributions to trade associations, and only 30% fully disclose their donations to 527 political organizations. So there is a long way to go.

In the wake of January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol and the pause imposed by some companies on their political donations, prospects for a change in the status quo may be improving. In February, ICCR asked companies to consider ending political spending on elections. This proxy season, shareholders sent a clear message for more disclosure and alignment of corporate political spending and lobbying.

This post is in a series that exams the outcome of the 2021 proxy season. For a complete list of SGI resolutions from 2021, please visit this page.

COVID-19 Pandemic Challenges Traditional Pharma Model

From the beginning one thing was clear: the COVID-19 pandemic will end only when everyone, everywhere has access to vaccines and life-saving treatment. Even as we struggle here in the U.S. to vaccinate people of color and those who are reluctant, billions of people elsewhere have been suffering through a pandemic with no access to vaccines, even as there are significant surpluses here and elsewhere in the world.

To be fair, the pharmaceutical industry deserves praise for producing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines so quickly. Developing a vaccine takes an average of 10 years — if it works at all. Despite decades of well-funded research, there are still no vaccines for HIV or malaria. We now have multiple, highly effective COVID vaccines, all developed in less than a year.

These vaccines are the product of innovative research dating back several decades, spurred by unprecedented public investment. Operation Warp Speed has provided more than $10 Billion in support of vaccine makers for the development and expansion of manufacturing capacity. Another $825 million has been given in support of monoclonal antibody therapies. As of March, U.S. commitment to the CT-Accelerator stood at $6 billion. In April, President Biden pledged another $2 billion to the international COVAX effort.

Amid such vast public investment, pharma companies pursued monopolistic deals with the fruits of taxpayer-funded innovation, rather than volunteering to share their know-how for the next great task facing humanity: getting those vaccines to everyone, everywhere, at the lowest cost possible, as quickly as possible. This traditional business model based on public funding followed by IP protected monopolistic practices is finally facing financial, legal, and reputational risks.

Alongside other ICCR members, SGI members participated in a campaign to challenge companies to disclose how public investment into COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics figured into global pricing & access strategies. This is important, because drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them. The increasing trends of the rise of coronavirus variants combined with our collective failure to mask up and maintain social distance suggests that Covid-19 will become an endemic condition, much like the flu. Billions of us likely will need the vaccine each year.

This is not an issue that only rests with governments. Corporations have an important role to play in ensuring equitable access to affordable, quality care. Recent shareholder resolutions asked pharma companies to account for their role in our collective fight against the Coronavirus. Many other shareholders agreed yielding votes in excess of 30%. As a recent article in Responsible Investor asked: “[S]hould middle/low income countries have to rely on the paternalism of well-meaning NGOs and donors when the pharmaceutical industry has it within its power to play a pivotal role in ending this global scourge?”

Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi Rejoin SGI

SGI is in the midst of welcoming new members. We will features some brief profiles of them so that the broader membership has an opportunity to welcome them. Our first new member is really a member who rejoins us. The Sisters of Sr. Francis of Assisi have been members of SGI through many years. The membership lapsed a few years back, and, now, we are delighted to renew our collaboration!

Jill & Steven Haberman, the community’s Justice and Peace Animators, share the following:

The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi is a community of women religious with a 172-year history of acting on Franciscan Christian values in the world. Trusting in God’s providence, the sisters strive to live the Gospel by nurturing a deep sense of the worth of every person and of all creation. They have a longstanding commitment to social justice action and socially responsible investing. Their relationship with SGI has its roots in Irene Senn’s work with Fr. Mike Crosby. We are delighted to rejoin this collaboration!

As the current Justice and Peace Animators, we are the SGI member contacts for our congregation. We are new to the role, having spent years as middle and high school Catholic educators, including mission teaching on the Texas/Mexico border and in Appalachian Kentucky. Steven also worked for three years against the death penalty in Texas. Social justice is always close to our hearts.

Areas of action we would like to focus include anti-racism, human trafficking, care of creation, and immigration. Thank you for making us feel so welcome; we look forward to working with this dynamic group.

We offer a hearty welcome to the Sisters of St. Francis as we continue our collaboration in building a more just and sustainable world!

Human Rights Remain a Focus

SGI members have been engaging mac & cheese and ketchup producer, Kraft Heinz, on issues including nutrition, deforestation, and human rights for several years. In 2019, Kraft Heinz published a Human Rights Policy after withdrawal of a shareholder resolution filed by The Capuchin Province of St. Joseph. Subsequently, after an ESG materiality assessment, Kraft Heinz ranked human rights as among the issues with the greatest impact on the company and of most importance to its stakeholders. 

The Capuchins and other SGI and ICCR members continued to engage the company on the implementation of their new policy. However, their lack of transparency and slow progress on implementing a due diligence process resulted in a low score of 21 out of 100, ranking 27 out of 43 companies on the most recent Know the Chain Benchmark, which has also identified tomatoes, cattle, and coffee being sourced by Kraft Heinz as having a high risk of human rights abuses. This was further confirmed by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark who scored Kraft Heinz 7.5 out of 26, including 0 points on Human Rights Due Diligence. 

Given this lack of progress, SGI members filed a second proposal asking the company to complete a Human Rights Impact Assessment to “mitigate against significant operational, financial, and reputational risks associated with negative human rights impacts throughout its supply chain.” Although the company undertook a global human rights risk assessment last year, they did not publish plans to complete a due diligence process. However, they have committed to undertake third-party due diligence audits prioritizing the most problematic countries and commodities identified in its risk assessment. Kraft Heinz further acknowledged that social audits are not designed to capture sensitive labor and human rights violations such as forced labor and harassment, and their due diligence audits will engage workers in a meaningful way to determine root causes and address remediation and capacity building. Based on this commitment, shareholders withdrew the proposal.

Despite the movement that we are seeing from the company, Kraft Heinz remains one of 106 companies whom ICCR members and allies are engaging on their weak human rights policy implementation. ICCR’s Investor Alliance for Human Rights reached out to those 106 companies, including others engaged by SGI members: Kohl’s, Macy’s, Phillips 66, TJX, and Yum! Brands, about scoring 0 across the human rights due diligence indicators in the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) 2020 Report. 

The statement sent to each company explains that “Companies need to know and show their respect for human rights under the UN Guiding Principles for Human Rights, through public disclosure of the implementation and ongoing results of human rights due diligence processes.” Similar to corporate greenwashing, companies often rely on policies, codes of conduct, and traditional audits which have been shown to be insufficient in addressing and remediating human rights impacts.

While it is important for a company to understand their material financial risks, a holistic human rights policy requires understanding of their salient risks. These salient risks focus on the risks to people rather than the financial performance of the company. Implementing a human rights policy and doing the proper due diligence is required for a social license to operate and should not create an internal dilemma. This is about fair and just treatment of people. It is not a question of if this needs to be done; it is a question of why it has not already been done.