“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.

Supreme Court rules on Nestlé USA, Cargill child labor case

Today, in an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of two corporations accused of links to child slavery in the Ivory Coast. The case, Nestlé v. Doe, was a lawsuit brought by six Mali citizens against the companies Nestlé USA and Cargill. The lawsuit claimed that the chocolate makers aided and abetted child slavery on African cocoa farms, reversing a ruling that allowed the claims to proceed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the companies’ activities in the United States were not sufficiently related to the alleged abuses to be subject to suit under the ATS. The decision, the latest in a series of rulings, sets increasingly strict limitations on federal lawsuits based on foreign human rights abuses. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the lone dissent.

I wrote about the December 2020 oral arguments here. The decision feels like a setback, especially as we observed World Day Against Child Labor just last week (June 12th), and, yesterday, the U.S. State Department heralded the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs):

These principles recognize a three-pronged approach to protecting human rights in the context of business activity: States have the duty to protect human rights; businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights; and victims affected by business-related human rights issues should have access to remedy. We commemorate the achievements made over the last decade in these areas, and take heed of the substantive work that still needs to be done toward realization of these principles.

Antony JBlinken, Secretary of State, Press Statement

While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nestlé USA and Cargill, hope is not lost. The majority of justices rejected a notion of corporate immunity under the statute. The ruling continues to hold that corporations can be sued under international law for actions within their supply chain. The case will be remanded to a lower court where the six trafficked children will seek to amend their case in such a way as to satisfy today’s ruling. I join in the hopes that they have their day in court and that justice is done.

Taking “heed of the substantive work that still needs to be done,” SGI urges Nestlé and Cargill to take action to action to eliminate the grave crime of child slavery from their supply chain, and we will continue to call upon all companies with whom we engage to see and act on their responsibility for protecting and respecting human rights and providing remediation for those instances were human rights have been violated.

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.

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.

Webinar: Human Rights Due Diligence

On Friday, April 17th, SGI’s quarterly webinar addressed due diligence in human rights required of companies. The traditional audit and codes of conduct, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. We were fortunate that ICCR’s Anita Dorett, Camille Le Pors, the lead for the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, and Patricia Jurewicz of the Responsible Sourcing Network, joined us for this webinar. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Anita, Camille, and Patricia  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.

The Ag Sector: The Nexus of Migration and Human Trafficking

Agricultural workers are some of the most vulnerable workers on the planet. In the U.S., we carve out laws that treat agricultural workers differently from all other U.S. workers. Further, it is a sector populated largely with foreign-born workers. All too often, these circumstances generate situations of horrific human exploitation.

On Friday, February 14, we were joined in our quarterly webinar by a leader in efforts to uncover human trafficking and modern slavery: Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Laura, a founding member of CIW, helped to establish the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign. In 2010, she was honored by the U.S. State Department as a TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Hero. In 2015, the anti-slavery campaign received the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Modern Day Slavery. CIW has pioneered a worker-based social responsibility model, the Fair Food Program, to include workers in addressing exploitation and abuse and to eradicate modern slavery in Florida’s tomato fields. We also discussed how these lessons can be applied to our corporate engagements.

We highly recommend sharing this video with your investment committee and other essential people involved in your investment strategy.

We are very grateful for Laura’s presence in this webinar, for her long-standing commitment to eradicate modern slavery in the ag sector, and her generosity in sharing her wisdom and experience with us.

As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here

Raise the Alarm for Xinjiang

Over the last few years, casual readers of newspapers likely had vague awareness that China had imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country’s far-west Xinjiang province. While the Chinese government claims that the prisoners are volunteers who receive job training, human rights organizations allege that the ethnic minorities endure mass incarceration in “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate those ethnic minorities.

In the last six months, a barrage of new events and evidence clarified the situation with striking details. In June, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) published a detailed, 34-page report on a factory owned by the Hetian Taida Apparel Company that supplied university logo clothing to Badger Sportswear. The WRC found:

. . . the investigation Badger commissioned of Hetian Taida, in response to allegations of forced labor, was fatally compromised by the company’s rush to exonerate itself and its supplier; the company announced findings, supposedly based on worker interviews, before [emphasis added] interviewing any workers. [p. 2]

The U.S. State Department placed China on Tier Three (the lowest category) in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, dedicating considerable attention to Xinjiang. In early October, Time magazine reported that the U.S. Blocks Imports From 5 Countries Over Allegations of Forced Labor, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intervened on a Costco shipment from Hetian Taida. Days later, the WRC issued an Update on Forced Labor and Hetian Taida Apparel. Badger Sportswear only cut ties after CBP intervened on the shipment for Costco.  The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group for brands and retailers, issued a disappointing and underwhelming statement in response to this report that they were “deeply concerned” and called on the Chinese government to act. Also, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a critical report entitled Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains offering specific guidance for companies and investors. A rare event these days, a bipartisan letter came from members of both the U.S. House and Senate calling on the CBP to investigate and block goods coming from the Xinjiang province.  

Last week, classified documents from the Chinese government were leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, providing policies and procedures inside the re-education camps.   The camps reportedly have watch towers, double-locked doors, and video surveillance “to prevent escapes.” The Chinese government apparently uses the camps to train its artificial intelligence programs for use in mass surveillance. The documents demonstrate that forced labor is an integral part of the Chinese government’s strategy for ideological conversion through industrialization. This is the largest incarceration of people based on an ethnic or religious identity since 1945.

A Toxic Combination for Apparel Companies and Consumers

China is the source of about 40% of all clothing sold in the U.S. The Xinjiang province grows 80% of China’s cotton, and, increasingly, the cotton is ginned there. Companies are erecting new factories in Xinjiang for additional steps in the garment-making process. Further, fabric from China is exported to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all significant sources of apparel sold in the U.S

Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights within company-owned operations and through business relationships. This obligation is delineated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Every brand and retailer that sources from China is exposed to the risks for forced labor in their supply chains: the harvesting and ginning of cotton, the spinning of the yarn, and the business relationships with corporations collaborating with the Chinese government to build and staff these new factories. The issue is not “simply” a violation of a retailer’s code of conduct or a reputational risk; companies risk a violation of U.S. law concerning importation of garments made with forced labor.

As public scrutiny of these issues increases, it will become increasingly clear that companies’ due diligence mechanisms (audits and codes of conduct) are insufficient. We at SGI would argue that, even in the best of circumstances, audits and codes of conduct, while necessary, are insufficient to protect human rights. In the circumstance of the Xinjiang province, such efforts are rendered ineffective.

We urge companies to take this risk seriously. It is not enough to lay low and wait; companies must engage proactively. We also urge the U.S. government to take meaningful action against the Chinese government in this matter. Even our faith communities have a responsibility to act. Events in support of “religious freedom” ring hollow if it does not also include action to respect the religious freedom of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Finally, as consumers, we are called to solidarity with those who endure forced labor. NPR’s Scott Simon put it well: “What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.”

To learn more:

Homework with the Trafficking in Persons Report

The Trafficking in Persons Report, or TIP Report, is an annual report issued by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The TIP Report ranks governments based on their perceived efforts to acknowledge and combat human trafficking. Thursday, June 20th, the 2019 edition was issued.

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. Some regard the tier 2 watch list with suspicion as some determinations have suggested a reward to governments allied with the U.S. who otherwise would be in tier 3.

The report intends to offer “homework” to governments based on their tier. The image below 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.

I don’t want companies to avoid sourcing from these countries: I prefer companies to promote improved standards and conditions in those countries. Even if the governmental authorities do not adhere to a recognized global minimum, companies have a responsibility to act responsibly, to act in accord with the protection of human rights. A company, working in those countries, must take extra steps to reduce human trafficking and to care for the victims of trafficking in their supply chains.

The resolutions that SGI members introduced at Kraft Heinz, Macy’s, TJX, and Wendy’s aimed to do just that. We asked those companies to do a human rights impact assessment, to look through their supply chains at the most vulnerable workers. They then would mitigate the human rights abuses  and remedy those workers whose rights were violated. Over time, those learnings are compiled and integrated into the ongoing processes of the company to insure greater adherence to human rights in their supply chain.

Now for some personal homework. I would recommend printing off the image above. Perhaps, you may want to laminate it to carry it with you.

When going to bed this evening, take a look at the countries of origin for the clothing you have worn. I’d be willing to bet that much of your clothing comes from a country listed above. Many of the electronic items that we use daily have supply chains woven through these countries. I bring that to your attention, kind reader, not to shame you or make you feel guilty, but, in the hopes, that we might see– along with the companies who provide us those products– that we have real power to change the situation in those countries.

Faith-Based Shareholders: In It for the Long Haul

While it may seem like a long time, it is heartening to recall that Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, waiting to enter the promised land.

Almost 30 years ago, Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. began a dialogue with executives from Wendy’s. Concerned that adequate progress was not being made on due diligence concerning potential and actual human rights issues, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph filed a shareholder resolution on human rights this year. The company challenged the resolution, and the Securities Exchange Commission ruled that the resolution could be omitted. As our resolution had been omitted by the SEC, it would not be coming to a vote, but I attended the shareholder meeting in Dublin, OH on behalf of the Capuchins so as to make a statement to the board and the company officers about our concerns in the area of human rights due diligence.

The team from Wendy’s were very gracious hosts. Having arrived early, a member of the investor relations team took me to visit what had been the office of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas. I had the opportunity to meet executives who have been on calls with us. Personally, I find it helpful to have a face to put to the voice that I hear on the phone. I also had the opportunity to meet CEO Todd Penegor, board chair Nelson Peltz, and chief legal officer E.J. Wunsch, as well as other members of the board.

The meeting itself lasted a bit over 75 minutes. After a brief video highlighting Wendy’s 50 years, Mr. Peltz opened the meeting. Three items of business were conducted: a vote concerning the board of directors, a vote concerning the company’s auditors, and, finally, an advisory vote concerning executive compensation. The video to the voting was completed within a swift 11 minutes. Next, Mr. Penegor gave an overview of the company’s business plan. Following Mr. Penegor, Liliana Esposito, the chief communications officer, addressed corporate social responsibility and gave an ESG update.

Upon the conclusion of Ms. Esposito’s remarks, the floor was opened to general questions and comments. First, Kerry Kennedy, daughter to the late Robert F. Kennedy, spoke in favor of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Food Program. Next, Mr. Peltz recognized me, and I approached the microphone to offer my statement.

My remarks aimed to accomplish four things:

  • To identify the abundant risks for human trafficking and forced labor in agricultural supply chains;
  • To describe the fundamental shift effected by laws here in the U.S. and abroad that, while good and necessary, codes of conduct and audits are no longer sufficient;
  • To outline a better process, employed by many leading companies: a human rights risk assessment that incorporates the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • And to encourage Wendy’s to take these necessary steps that, at heart, are in accord with the deepest values of the founder, Dave Thomas, and the company.

Subsequently, Chelsea Rudman of the Workers Rights Consortium spoke similarly of the value of worker-driven social responsibility efforts. Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council spoke about the use of medically-important antibiotics in meat and poultry served at Wendy’s. A shareholder asked a question concerning the updating of restaurant infrastructures. Mike Telford of the National Pork Producers Council thanked Wendy’s for their relationship with pork producers. Nelly Rodriguez, from the CIW, offered a moving witness, in Spanish, about the importance of the Fair Food Program. Another shareholder asked a question concerning non-meat substitutes. Finally, a shareholder, who is also an adoption assessor, rose to speak a word of thanks for Wendy’s commitment to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Soon thereafter, the meeting was adjourned.

While the meeting maintained its decorum, no attendee could be blind to the concerns raised by the different voices. While I am disappointed that our resolution did not come to a vote this year, SGI remain committed to working with Wendy’s to improve their practices in the area of human rights.

As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. Even after a 40-year sojourn in the desert, the fact is that Moses never made it into the promised land, but he did see it before he died. Faith-based shareholders differ from day traders. We are in it for the long haul. We genuinely care about the companies we engage. We will bring items to their attention that may make company leadership uncomfortable. We do so, because we are committed to protecting people and the planet. We believe that the interests of the company, through the long haul, align with the interests of people and the planet.

The statement prepared for the 2019 Wendy’s shareholder meeting can be found here.

The surprisingly powerful voice of shareholders

By Mark Peters, Director of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation, Priests of the Sacred Heart, US Province, Member, SGI Board

How did I, someone who’s never been much into shopping and stores and has gotten his clothes from Kohl’s since junior high, find myself addressing the CEO, Board and a smattering of shareholders of Macy’s, Inc. in Cincinnati last month? It’s all thanks to a Capuchin priest who had the foresight to see how important corporations would become in the 21st Century.

Fr. Mike Crosby, OFM Cap, died two years ago, but he lives on in the work of Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment. Fr. Mike recruited me back in 2014 and coached me through my first shareholder resolution, which was with TJX, the company that owns TJMaxx, Homegoods and Marshalls. We got 3% of the vote, a victory because you needed that much to bring it back the next year. That time we got under the next benchmark and that was the end of that campaign, though not of our continuing dialogue with TJX. Votes under 5% are not unusual in this line of work! We often plant seeds that don’t bear immediate fruit.

This year Chris Cox, Associate Director of SGI (along with Executive Director Frank Sherman, who was mentored by Mike), directed our resolution with Macy’s, requesting a report on their process for ensuring that no vendor is engaged in forced labor (their byzantine supply chains are the reason their clothes are so cheap and the company is so profitable). Chris consulted with experts in the drafting of the resolution and provided me with lots of material for the dialogue that the company agreed to after we filed. But ultimately the company would not agree to undertake the report, so we did not withdraw, as is sometimes done when a company does make a good faith beginning.

That’s what brought me to Cincinnati on May 17. Someone needed to be present to “move” the proposal, as the Board had made known it’s opposition to it and it would be dropped if no one spoke for it. However, Macy’s was stingier than most with the time they allot speakers, and we were told we had only one minute. So 800 miles driving and a hotel stay, all for the sake of 90 seconds (try and keep me to 60!) of opportunity to sway the votes of a mere handful of shareholders present at the (to me) surprisingly sparsely-attended AGM (annual general meeting) — all of whom, as it turned out, had apparently already voted their shares prior to the meeting.  So I was basically just talking to the board.

But in the end the shareholders spoke to them as well, because our proposal received 40% of the vote!  Chris and I were shocked, but very pleasantly so, as this ensures us a continued seat at the table with the company, and the very real chance of a win next year. Apparently investors are starting to care about human trafficking!

As often happens (and as someone else has done for us with this same proposal at the TJX AGM this week outside of Boston), we’d been asked to move another group’s proposal, this one on transparency on political contributions. I read their statement as well, and that proposal actually received 53% of the vote. I spoke to the Corporate Counsel afterward, and she said the company would likely implement the proposal because of that showing.

A number of other SGI members have had successful outings this proxy season, especially those working on climate change-related resolutions, which for most investors is now clearly a strong value. Now begins the work of readying ourselves for the next season!

Mark’s statement at the annual shareholder meeting can be found here.