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:

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.

Supply Chain Human Rights Webinar

Dispersed global supply chains for many items in our daily lives veil immense violations of human rights. This webinar cuts to the heart of many SGI corporate engagements. Pat Zerega, director of Shareholder Advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, speaks about ethical recruitment (which reduces human trafficking). We hear, as well, from Mary Beth Gallagher of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, of her work with Tyson and the poultry sector.

We are so very grateful for the presence of our colleagues from Mercy Investment Services and Tri-State in this webinar.

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

SGI joins investor statement on 5th Anniversary of Rana Plaza Disaster

At the fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh which resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 garment workers, SGI joins ICCR members in an investor statement assessing advancements made to improve worker health and safety in the Bangladesh apparel sector.

Within months of the disaster, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was established as a model for collective action between brands and retailers sourcing in Bangladesh, as well as global and local trade unions, and NGOs, to inspect the country’s apparel factories and implement necessary reforms to safeguard workers.

Led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the Bangladesh Investor initiative, an investor coalition comprising 250 institutional investors representing over $4.5 trillion in assets under management, was formed in May of 2013 to urge a strong corporate response to Rana Plaza including participation in the Accord. Further, in their engagements with companies the investors made four main recommendations:

  • Join the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety (Accord) signed by trade unions, brands and retailers with NGOs as witness signatories;
  • Commit to strengthening local trade unions and ensuring a living wage for all workers including through their engagement with the Bangladesh government;
  • Publicly disclose all their suppliers including those from Bangladesh;
  • Ensure that appropriate grievance mechanisms and effective remedies, including compensation, are in place for affected workers and families.

The investors argue that supply chain transparency is critical to safeguarding worker safety and employer responsibility since visibility into extended supply chains, including sub-contractors, is a precondition to identifying risks, including safety, forced labor, harassment, discrimination and denial of freedom of association.

“Stakeholders, including investors, rely on transparency as a tool for evaluating corporate performance on a range of social, environmental and governance issues,” observed Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common Asset Management. “The Accord has been very transparent in requiring disclosure of each of the 1,600 factories it covers which helps investors track progress. This disclosure requirement is a ‘best practice’ that all companies need to implement, beginning with 1st tier suppliers, then throughout their extended supply chains.”

The Accord model has proven to be effective due to the binding nature of the agreement, and a governance structure that has equal representation of brands and trade unions with an independent chair from the International Labor Organization.

“We applaud the Accord for Fire and Building Safety for establishing safer factories through collective action at an unprecedented level, with 220 brands using their leverage to change supplier behavior in partnership with global and local trade unions,” said David Schilling, Senior Program Director, ICCR. “This transformative model should be applied and adapted to at-risk supply chains in other sectors and countries.”

Investors have been pressing companies and their boards to take the ‘high road’ when setting prices to enable factories to pay fair wages and comply with workplace human rights standards, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“Investors have the ability to influence company directors. This means that moral responsibilities accompany the rights we enjoy as shareholders,” said Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors. “The casual disregard for employee welfare demonstrated by the directors involved in the Rana Plaza catastrophe should be unacceptable to anyone. As institutional investors, we should challenge corruption and exploitation in all its forms wherever we find it. Ensuring we motivate the right kinds of corporate behavior is part of our own duty to our clients.”

While the investors are pleased with progress made by the Accord, they emphasize that the job of remediating all the issues is far from done and will continue to urge those companies that have not signed on to the 2018 Accord and its three-year extension to do so.

“It has been five years since the nightmare that took place at Rana Plaza, and while significant progress has been made by the Accord to address the root causes of the tragedy, we must not forget that these workplace risks persist in many sectors across the globe,” said Sr. Barbara Aires of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, NJ. “The moral and business imperative for corporations to preempt these risks by implementing comprehensive safeguards throughout their supply chains is clear. As investors and stakeholders, we will continue to monitor progress on these concerns in the Bangladesh apparel sector and beyond.”

To see the full statement, please visit here. See more from ICCR here.