Tag Archives: corporate social responsibility

The Limits of Corporate Benevolence, from Mongolia to Michigan

The phrase “human rights” is nowhere to be found in the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement, a document [pdf] that will play a critical role in guiding Mongolia’s development over the next decade. The Agreement sets the terms for the $6.2 billion investment in the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mining project, which promises to account for no less than one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by the year 2020. Rio Tinto has a 66 percent stake in the project through its subsidiary, Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd; the Mongolian government owns the rest.

Along with the serious environmental concerns cited by the United States when it abstained, in February of this year, from a World Bank investment scheme in Oyu Tolgoi, there are a host of human rights issues to address — from migrancy to land seizures, rights to the scarce water resources of the Gobi desert region, conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger camps, and the survival of Mongolia’s herder communities. (The Bank Information Center provides an overview of these concerns, here and here.) The Investment Agreement briefly addresses some of these points, but it resorts, in all instances, to what I would call the language of corporate benevolence.

So the Investor agrees to abide by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a voluntary agreement to publish payments made by the Oyu Tolgoi mine to the government); in another place (section 4.13; but cf. also section 4.6) the Investor consents to “build and maintain productive working relationships, based on principles of transparency, accountability, accuracy, trust, respect and mutual interests, with non-governmental organizations, civic groups, civil councils and other stakeholders.” Beyond this, there is not much else to guide or govern the company’s conduct vis a vis civil society and its responsibility to respect human rights.

Given the high stakes, the scale of Oyu Tolgoi and the involvement of the World Bank and IFC in the project, it is surprising the Agreement does not explicitly incorporate — or reference — the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Instead of creating binding agreements or even practical mechanisms to ensure that Oyu Tolgoi and the government of Mongolia meet their respective human rights obligations as the economy accelerates and the social terrain continues to shift, the Investment Agreement relies on the language of corporate social responsibility to smooth things over.

Part of the trouble with CSR isn’t just that it tends to replace binding agreements and articulated responsibilities with vague sentiments, the language of corporate benevolence, and promises of sustainability and shared prosperity. That’s bound to happen when social responsibility meets public relations. A bigger problem is that the commitments companies voluntarily make to contribute to economic development and social progress — and to respect human rights — will last only as long as the business requires them.

For an example of how abruptly a company can ditch stakeholder communities, what happened in Michigan yesterday with another Rio Tinto project may turn out to be more instructive than what’s happening right now in Mongolia. In the face of serious environmental and human rights challenges to its Eagle Mine project over the last several years, Rio Tinto all along touted its good corporate citizenship, promising to “leave more wood on the woodpile” and to take an active hand in the long term, “sustainable development” of the Upper Peninsula. That is just part of “The Way We Work,” as the title of a Rio Tinto CSR publication would have it — or at least it was the Way We Worked. Yesterday, the company announced that it had sold the Eagle Mine project to Toronto-based Lundin Mining for the tidy sum of $325 million cash — part of CEO Sam Walsh’s strategy to divest from “non-core” assets and protect the single-A credit rating the company currently enjoys. A community of stakeholders whose future Rio Tinto promised to make happy, bright and prosperous became, overnight, a disposable asset.

The Social Costs of the Hardware Revolution – A Postscript

For now, this can be only a short postscript to what I had to say earlier today about the CNN Money article by John Hagel and John Seely-Brown on “the hardware revolution.” It has to do with a question that occurred to me as I read, and to which I don’t yet have anything like an adequate answer. That will take some research. But I at least want to articulate the question.

Startups and smaller companies can now play in the hardware space in part because the barriers to entry have been lowered, Hagel and Seely-Brown observe. There are a number of factors at work here. New and cheaper technologies from 3D printers to more user-friendly software put the design and manufacture of hardware within reach of smaller companies. And “a new class of factories” will produce the smaller orders that new entrants and entrepreneurs typically require:

New infrastructural elements have also helped new hardware products move from the hobbyist’s basement to the startup garage. Before, to get a contract manufacturer’s attention, you had to commit to producing high volumes (say 50,000 or more units). But a new class of factories — mostly in China and Mexico — will manufacture batches as small as 5,000 units. By filling low-volume orders, these factories have filled an important structural hole in the market: They allow entrepreneurs to launch new products for small consumer groups with little investment.

My question is whether conditions and, for that matter, sourcing practices in this new class of factories, and the more fluid hardware market they serve, are not going to be terribly difficult to monitor. We’ve seen how challenging it is even to ensure fair labor practices in large-scale manufacturing facilities in China used by major global technology brands; now, as smaller-scale manufacturing facilities proliferate and Mexico becomes a technology “quicksourcing” destination for American companies, the problem will no doubt be aggravated.

The reasons for this are probably obvious. I would frame the issue in a few ways. First, how much visibility do these smaller players actually have into their supply chains? Second, how much leverage do they actually have with their manufacturers, since they are only placing small orders, and, depending on their success, may or may not be repeat customers? Third, there’s a question about whether these small businesses — the small hardware startups placing orders and, for that matter, the manufacturing facilities taking them — have the capacity to take on the human rights challenges that seem inevitably to accompany outsourcing.

In other words, the social costs of the hardware revolution deserve some careful consideration.

Rio Tinto and the Rhetoric of Respect – Notes from the 2013 AGM

“Your mining is not unproblematic.” That understatement nicely summed up the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting held yesterday morning in London. But by the time a representative from the London Mining Network had uttered it near the end of the question period, Rio Tinto Chairman Jan du Plessis appeared to have stopped listening.

Up to that point it had been a lively and contentious meeting. Shareholders were miffed about the company’s blunders in Mozambique and the Alcan write off and confused by the executive compensation scheme. Some wanted to know why Tom Albanese wasn’t there to answer for the company’s troubles in 2012, when he was still CEO; another said it was time to stop scapegoating Albanese, and hold the board accountable: “every few years,” he said, we have “a resounding chaotic blunder…What has the board done?”

They were not the only ones to talk about blunders and bad decisions that put the company at risk. Activists, environmentalists and indigenous leaders who attended the meeting testified to the destructive effects of Rio Tinto’s large-scale industrial mining operations on the land, local communities, and traditional ways of life. These speakers all said they and the groups they represent would continue to oppose the company. In fact, their opposition is only growing; a couple even suggested that Rio Tinto could start cutting costs (a big priority for the mining giant right now) by abandoning or divesting from places where mining operations are not welcome. The message to shareholders was clear: protests, lawsuits and continued local opposition will put projects at risk, disrupt schedules and cost money.

Did the board get the message? Not likely. When an Alaskan Yupik elder spoke in opposition to the Pebble Mine project and urged the company to divest, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh thanked him for his “sincerity” and both du Plessis and Walsh complimented the elder on how “articulate” he was. It was a patronizing gesture, a pat on the head, not serious engagement. There were some further comments shouted from the audience but du Plessis shut the discussion down and moved to the next question.

Du Plessis repeated a talking point about how much he respects those who had to travel long distances to attend the meeting, but (as I saw it) this was an effort to recover from a stumble. Only minutes earlier he had impatiently dismissed a question about the Eagle Mine – citing “shoddy environmental protections,” poor design work, “fraudulently issued permits,” and the fact that the mine desecrates ground sacred to the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe — as “not particularly new.” He was having none of it.

There was lots of talk at the meeting about respect, and I’m afraid “respect” is becoming a word corporate boards use to deflect criticism and politely dismiss human rights, environmental and ethical issues. (Whether this is the unfortunate rhetorical fallout of the Ruggie Protect-Respect-Remedy human rights framework is a question for another day.)

For example, when asked what Rio Tinto has done to improve the lot of miners in South Africa, du Plessis responded that the company has developed “very healthy, respectful relationships not just with employees but with the community” in its South African operations. But what sorts of real commitments do those relationships entail? While the company is “not anti-union” –Walsh rejected that characterization — it nevertheless wants a free hand to “maintain direct contact with all our employees” for the sake of safety, efficiency, and (Walsh iced the cake with this) “value.”

One participant said that he couldn’t see how Rio Tinto reconciled its “corporate rhetoric” with its “actions on the ground.” At Oak Flat in Arizona, he went on to explain, Rio Tinto is trying to gain control of public lands sacred to the Apache. The reply was (again): “we will be respectful.” The company would like to “open up direct dialogue” on the Oak Flat project; the trouble is, dialogue can only be direct and truly respectful if the other party actually has an opportunity to be heard and – this is important — heeded.

Dialogue, community engagement, respect, responsibility – all these were floated at the meeting as remedies to the many problems communities face when Rio Tinto moves in. But what doesn’t get taken into account is that the company and these communities are not on equal footing. Nowhere near it. Rio Tinto has enormous influence and power, billions to invest, and – it should not be forgotten – shareholders who want a return on their investment.

So, during the question period, a woman representing Mongolian herders who will be displaced and deprived of water by Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi project spoke eloquently about a looming “catastrophe.” She had a soft voice that trembled a little as she spoke. Walsh listened, thanked her for traveling all that way to speak, and then replied that in Mongolia (as in Michigan and elsewhere) the company has “developed a participatory environmental water monitoring program.” If you see something, say something, I guess.

Never mind that she had just finished telling him about the threat of toxic leaks, environmental damage, pollution and river diversion. The IFC and “the people of Mongolia,” Walsh said, will hold Rio Tinto to account. He can’t really believe they will. The community of herders has little recourse and not even a fraction of the power Rio Tinto has; and Oyu Tolgoi, when completed, will account for 36 percent of Mongolia’s GDP. The scales are hopelessly tipped in Rio Tinto’s favor.

Maybe the question period of a shareholders meeting is not the place to have constructive dialogue on serious issues. Maybe those conversations have to happen after the meeting is over, or even behind closed doors. But if and when they do happen, will Rio Tinto really be listening?

Can JP Morgan Manage Its Human Rights Risk?

No one questions Jamie Dimon’s competence. It’s just not clear that Mr. Dimon or “any executive,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, “can properly oversee such a large financial institution” as JP Morgan Chase. The complexity of the bank’s balance sheet and the scale and scope of its investments boggle even the best minds. The London Whale losses demonstrate pretty clearly that it’s possible for the bank to overlook, or miss or ignore serious exposure – to do something stupid or sloppy, as Dimon likes to put it. I wonder how many shareholders now wish they could re-cast their vote for an independent chair, to check and govern the CEO; and I wonder, too, how many will question the bank’s claim that it is capable of managing the human rights risk in its portfolio of investments.

As I pointed out in a previous post, most boards reject human rights proposals on three grounds: that they would be restrictive, burdensome, or redundant. The JP Morgan board stuck pretty close to this script in urging shareholders to vote against a resolution for a “genocide-free” investing policy, which would ensure that its investments did not “substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, the most egregious violations of human rights, and to assist customers in avoiding the inadvertent inclusion of investments in such companies in their portfolios.” (You can read proposal 8 and the board’s response in the proxy statement here [pdf]).

Most immediately at issue are the banks investments in PetroChina and its subsidiary China National Petroleum Corporation, which pose “high risk due to their ties to the Sudanese government and its connection to human rights abuses.” That is not the hyperbolical cry of some outraged human rights advocate, but the sober and clear-eyed assessment of the board at T. Rowe Price; they joined 27 US states, 61 colleges and universities and the European Parliament’s pension fund in their decision to divest from PetroChina. JP Morgan, on the other hand, “increased holdings of PetroChina after being made aware of PetroChina’s connection to genocide,” CNN reports; and this year, again, the board confidently – some might now say arrogantly – asserted its ability to manage human rights risks:

 We use our extensive risk management processes and procedures to consider human rights and other reputational issues associated with our businesses….The Firm has a robust risk management framework…, and management routinely reviews specific business clients and transactions including where appropriate for consistency with our Human Rights Statement.

This year, the board had its way. The “genocide-free” proposal went down in defeat, garnering only 9.2 percent of the vote (which, by the way, means it’s not going away any time soon.) But the losses in London, which could run as high as five billion and will be difficult to unravel, give the lie to the board’s argument that further human rights risk review would be merely redundant. To the contrary, the losses raise serious questions about the bank’s ability to manage risk — of any and every kind. Its much-touted risk management framework does not seem so “robust” as the board makes it out to be. And it appears Ina Drew and crew operated without routine reviews or oversight. How, then, can the bank ensure that its investments in PetroChina and around the world are not exposing investors to other, more serious risks?

I refuse to believe that most investors don’t mind blood on their money; their confidence should be shaken.

As for Jamie Dimon, London harbored his white whale. China may turn out to be his human rights dragon. It’s said that when he first discovered the extent of the losses in London he could not catch his breath. Imagine what might happen if Jamie Dimon really understood the atrocities in Sudan and the part JP Morgan has played in them.

Can the UN Make Business Respect Human Rights?

Last Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council announced its endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, developed by John Ruggie. The UN press release called it “an unprecedented step,” the establishment of “the authoritative global reference point” in questions of business and human rights.

Unprecedented? Only if you ignore history. In fact, the UNHRC endorsement caps a long period of unhappiness over business and human rights at the UN.

Consider the origins of Ruggie’s mandate. After several false starts, beginning in the 1970s, the UN in 2003 issued the Norms on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises. The original goal, as Ruggie describes it [pdf], was “to impose on companies, directly under international law, the same range of human rights duties that States have accepted for themselves under treaties they have ratified.”

Sensible enough, you’d think. The Norms gave the UN a chance to “revive its relevance,” as Surya Deva puts it [pdf], “in a new world order in which states no longer enjoy the monopoly as violators of human rights”. Despite a promising start, the Norms ended up falling far short, in Deva’s judgment, of laying the groundwork for “an effective international regulatory regime of corporate human rights responsibility.”

Businesses fought back fiercely; and governments, far from offering support, “went into hiding,” as Ruggie put it in a 2008 interview. By the time the Norms emerged from a UN Sub-Committee in August of 2003, they were hardly fighting words. Like the UN Global Compact, launched amid much hullabaloo only three years earlier, the Norms were not legally binding and left it up to businesses to decide the depth of their commitment and to meet human rights responsibilities on their own terms. (And as I pointed out in a previous post, most companies are only too happy to say that they are equipped to decide, all by themselves, whether they are respecting human rights.)

Recognizing that his mandate began in “controversy,” Ruggie took a “consultative” approach to developing his framework. This was shrewd, as it included business from the start, and gained endorsements — I almost want to call them corporate sponsors, given the display of logos on the Global Business Initiative site — along the way: South American mining company Cerrejon, GE, Flextronics, Coca Cola, JSL Stainless, Sime Darby, Novo Nordisk, and French oil giant Total, among others. 47 states, including the United States, also signed on.

The diplomatic achievement is admirable, but result of all this consensus-building is predictably anodyne. According to the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework Ruggie developed, the State has a duty to Protect human rights; corporations have a responsibility to Respect human rights; and victims of abuse need access to judicial and non-judicial Remedy. The Guiding Principles set out “comprehensive recommendations” for how states and businesses are to “implement” the framework, “in order to better manage business and human rights challenges.” “Manage” seems to be the operative word here, and the whole exercise is, unfortunately, replete with management-speak.

In other words, the Guiding Principles and the Framework they accompany feel a little like Norms 2.0, offering guidance and encouragement instead of rules and regulations, and on terms business finds acceptable. Like the Global Compact, the Guidelines create a forum for discussion and dissemination of ideas — “another talk shop,” as Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch said dismissively. US envoy Daniel Baer was a little more generous – and decidedly cautious — when he said the Guiding Principles would make it “less likely” that businesses take “actions that might undermine the enjoyment of human rights.”

So it’s unclear to me exactly how much has been accomplished. Julian B. Gonzalez, Vice President for Sustainability and Public Affairs at Cerrejon, says Ruggie’s work has “not been in vain” and credits Ruggie with having shown his company the way: now the mining company has established “a rights-based Grievance Office” and has gained “better knowledge of neighbor communities and our impacts.” Flextronics reports it is now “proactively” addressing human rights; Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent appeared in a “global video” emphasizing the importance of respecting human rights across the global supply chain. And so on.

Maybe this counts as a step in the right direction, or maybe it’s just a public relations exercise. It might be both. Whether the UN could have done more this time around remains a question. In any case it seems clear that Wednesday’s announcement represents another attempt to establish UN authority in the area of human rights without offending some of the world’s most powerful actors, without regulating business activity or curtailing bad corporate behavior.

On the Heroics at Home Depot

A video making the rounds on YouTube and on progressive blogs features the American Family Association’s Buddy Smith telling the story of his run-in with Home Depot Chairman and CEO Fred Blake at the annual shareholders meeting on June 2nd.

Smith, whose organization also runs a site called BoycottTheHomeDepot.com, came to the shareholders meeting to present a petition asking Blake to “stop sponsoring gay pride parades and making direct contributions to gay activist organizations.” “A corporate company like Home Depot,” he complains, “is just not being a good citizen,” because they are “spreading the word” about a “lifestyle that is just a trap of Satan.” Good corporate citizenship, in Smith’s view, requires “standing for God’s truth” out of “love” for “our neighbors.”

How’s that for a theory of corporate social responsibility?

To Smith’s dismay, Fred Blake wasn’t having any of it. The Home Depot CEO responded “very briefly” to Smith. Blake went on, in Smith’s account, to say that he “was very proud of Home Depot’s diversity”; and the CEO “made a recommitment just to continue down the very track that they’re going.” So Blake sent Smith packing.

Whether this showed “some real backbone,” as blogger Cory Doctorow puts it, is up for debate: how much courage does it take to dismiss a crazy old coot like Smith, or double down on diversity policies for which there is a strong business case? Discrimination unnecessarily limits the labor pool and risks offending potential customers.

If the buzz on Twitter is any indication, the issue seems settled; and Blake is a champion of diversity and a model of socially responsible corporate leadership. Most people were retweeting @RightWingWatch’s tweet: “AFA brings boycott to Home Depot board meeting & CEO tells AFA to take a hike, reiterates commitment to diversity.” One poster, a Lady Gaga fan, called Blake “bad ass”; others said they now preferred Home Depot to its competitor, Lowes. @biggkhalil took up AFA’s theme of corporate citizenship: “Dear AFA, Home Depot is a great citizen. I pledge to continue shopping there. You people are pathetic.” Yet another poster thanked the company “for standing up for equality! Let’s send a Village People construction worker with a gift basket!” Others used more colorful language to denounce Smith and praise Blake.

Everybody agrees Blake made the right call; nobody seems too concerned that he made an easy call. I guess people like to see these holy-rollers get their comeuppance. But it’s worth noting that there was another item on the agenda at the Home Depot meeting that deserves more attention than Blake’s rebuff of Smith. It has to do not with Home Depot policy but Home Depot politics – specifically with the money Home Depot gives through its PAC to candidates and their refusal to give shareholders a say in how that money gets spent.

It turns out some of the company’s spending doesn’t jive with their much-celebrated commitment to diversity. As Andy Kroll reports in Mother Jones:

in 2006, the PAC donated $1,000 to Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, now the state’s governor and a supporter of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and gave $10,000 to help Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. McDonnell is a staunch opponent of workplace protections for LGBT state employees.

Arguing that Blake and his executive team at Home Depot “were giving to candidates who were actively rolling back the rights of GLBT people in the states in which they did business” and that this put the company’s reputation at risk, Julie Goodridge and Northstar Management brought a resolution to give shareholders an advisory vote on corporate political spending.

I’ve written about this resolution in a previous post. It is at best a first step, but it’s a step in the right direction. Some people believe that requiring full disclosure and giving investors a say may help check corporate political spending in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

That’s the hope. In fact, CEO Fred Blake and the Home Depot management team opposed the Northstar resolution from the very start. It gained a place on the annual meeting agenda only after an SEC ruling required the company to include it. And at the June 2nd shareholders meeting, the resolution (not surprisingly) went down in defeat.

Fred Blake has promised to announce the final tally soon. It would be a sign of real courage, or at least consistency, if he took the occasion to distance himself and his company from the bigotry of Brownback, McDonnell and their ilk.

3 Big Reasons Why Boards (Say They) Don’t Back Human Rights Proposals

Last week the Manhattan Institute launched ProxyMonitor, a site tracking shareholder proposals submitted to publicly traded companies via the annual proxy process. Right now, the site is limited to proposals made to Fortune 100 companies. Data goes back three years, to 2008. The site already offers some great features, including links to SEC filings around each proposal as well as the ability to filter and sort search results and export them to Excel.

People who have read my blog posts about business and society won’t be surprised that I went immediately to the “Social Policy” filter, which turns up 266 results.

Of these, thirty are human rights proposals made to the boards of twenty-one corporations: Abbot Laboratories, Archer Daniels Midland, Bank of America, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, E. I. du Pont de Nemours, Google, Honeywell International, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, News Corp, Philip Morris, United Technologies and Wells Fargo.

I’ve been sorting through those 30 proxy proposals, to see what they say about the way shareholder proponents and Boards of Directors deal with proposals around human rights.

It’s a fairly narrow range of investors putting forward these resolutions, and I wonder if this limits their chances of success. Proponents include churches and religious orders — the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, the Domestic and Foreign Mission of the Episcopal Church, the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order and the Presbyterian Church — as well as socially responsible investment funds: Christian Brothers Investment Services (who invest for Catholic institutions) and New Covenant (dedicated to advancing the Presbyterian mission through investment) along with independent, socially conscious investment firm Trillium Asset Management. Among the thirty proposals is one from Amnesty International; a handful of individual investors submit their own proposals. So far, no big surprises. The only standout entry in the list of human rights proponents is the New York City Comptroller’s Office, shareholders in Archer Daniels Midland.

It’s no surprise, either, that shareholder support for these proposals is usually weak, ranging from around 3-8 percent. There are a few notable exceptions. The NYC Comptroller’s Office proposal to ADM — requesting “that the company commit itself to the implementation of a code of conduct based on…ILO human rights standards and United Nations’ Norms…by its international suppliers and in its own international production facilities” — garnered 20 percent and 25 percent of the vote in 2008 and 2009 respectively. A 2010 proposal would have required Caterpillar to “review and amend, where applicable, Caterpillar’s policies related to human rights” and to post “a summary of this review…on Caterpillar’s website by October 2010”; that gained 20 percent support. And a proposal put forward by Chevron shareholders — that the Board “adopt a comprehensive, transparent, verifiable human rights policy and report to shareholders on the plan for implementation by October 2008” – won almost 28 percent support.

Why these proposals fared so much better than others is a question for another day. Why they didn’t ultimately succeed merits discussion as well. Despite impressive levels of support, they met with the same objections as all the other human rights resolutions in the ProxyMonitor database.

Why do Boards of Directors oppose these resolutions and recommend that shareholders vote against them? Or, at least, why do they say they can’t get behind human rights resolutions? What reasons do they offer?

Board opposition falls roughly into three categories.

First, the proposals are opposed because they are restrictive. The argument here is that the proposal would limit the company’s autonomy and blanket policies will hamper the company’s ability to operate. As JPMorgan Chase notes in its response to a 2008 human rights proposal, these matters are “complex” and “fact-specific,” so they need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Good judgment deals in particulars, without having to check each call against abstract measures; and since “opportunities for engagement” on these issues “vary greatly,” blanket policies might prevent the company from responding to a particular case in an appropriate way; and they might also hinder the company from pursuing “objectives and policies” they are charged with.

Second, they are opposed because they are burdensome. Putting human rights proposals into practice can be expensive, and it can place other burdens on company resources. Some companies make it sound as if they would simply be overwhelmed. This argument is taken to an absurd extreme by Wells Fargo in a 2008 filing.

Proponents were moved by the example of Sudan to put forward a resolution to “authorize and prepare a report to shareowners which discusses how our investment policies address or could address human rights issues.” The report was to specify “appropriate policies and procedures to apply when a company in which we are invested, or its subsidiaries or affiliates, is identified as contributing to human rights violations through their businesses or operations in a country with a clear pattern of mass atrocities or genocide.” Wells Fargo took refuge in its position as “a diversified financial services company”:

we invest on behalf of clients and customers in thousands of domestic and foreign companies, many with complex and far-reaching global operations. The effort required to screen thousands of individual companies, as the Proponents would seem to advocate, would be a task of tremendous scope requiring in-depth research and detailed evaluations of the nature and extent of each company’s global operations. We simply do not have appropriate resources or access to adequate and accurate information to make informed judgments on these complex issues.

So the argument that won the day came down to this: Wells Fargo can’t really track its own investments. The world is just too complex. Unable to do the research required to clarify its positions in “thousands of individual companies” and to make “informed judgments,” Wells Fargo simply can’t account for all the places it puts its clients’ money. This is not exactly reassuring. Still, the argument seems to have served its intended purpose. The proposal only received 6.81 percent support.

The third and by far the most common objection to human rights proposals is simply that the resolution is unnecessary or redundant. We see this argument made again and again in the SEC filings: the company already has a human rights framework or a code of conduct in place; the proposal, as one Chevron filing says, would “merely duplicate…current efforts” – an “unnecessary and inefficient use” of company resources.

Chevron has The Chevron Way. Caterpillar has its Worldwide Code of Conduct. ADM “believes that our company’s Business Code of Conduct and Ethics and our existing business practices address the substantive areas covered by the proposal.” Coke and Motorola say that when it comes to human rights, they already have it covered. Microsoft “continues to take steps we believe are appropriate” in the area of human rights and requires no additional prodding or cajoling. Citigroup has “implemented best practices regarding human rights,” so “a report concerning the company’s investment policies with respect to human rights issues would provide no meaningful benefit” to shareholders.

So much for scrutiny. In nearly every response to human rights resolutions, we are asked to believe that the company’s good faith, code of conduct and current efforts will be sufficient. Over and over again, companies assert against human rights proponents that they are perfectly capable of monitoring themselves and governing their own behavior. They have already incorporated existing human rights frameworks, such as the non-binding UN/Ruggie framework, into their deliberations, or developed their own codes of conduct with reference to those frameworks. Additional human rights reporting would be meaningless and probably just interfere with business operations. What could a report possibly turn up, these companies ask, that we ourselves have not already seen?

Call it arrogance, but these Fortune 100 companies are now confidently asserting their own human rights competence. They refuse to be held accountable because in their own estimation they are already socially responsible.

StarKist Cans Samoans

The economic news from faraway America is grim. Unemployment in the U.S. territory of American Samoa now sits at around thirty percent. More trouble is on the horizon.

In a bid to save jobs at the StarKist tuna cannery, the Territory’s big employer, American Samoa had asked to be exempted from the minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour. Congress rejected that plea. StarKist predictably responded with a fresh round of layoffs, and the company is likely to follow Chicken of the Sea to Thailand and other places in Asia where cannery workers earn as little as 75 cents an hour.

Congress is not indifferent to the lot of the American Samoans, of course, so it has proposed $18 million in new spending for the tiny, remote island territory of 65,000 people . An editorial in the Wall Street Journal the other day observed, with some justice, that this “taxpayer handout” amounts to foolishly attempting “to undo the damage Congress’s economic illiteracy has caused.” The editorial then went on to blame the Democrats, the unions, and the minimum wage for the layoffs and all the Territory’s economic woes. Apparently even the South Pacific cannot escape the socialist scourge.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. First, the $18 million set aside in the new spending bill was already being given away, to StarKist. Or, more precisely, StarKist would have already been entitled to that amount – up to $18 million dollars — in “30A” tax credits for 2010 if it had operated “at a profit” in American Samoa. In the language of the proposed legislation, this “economic development tax credit” was intended to reward StarKist for “the corporation’s employment and capital investment in American Samoa.”

The proposal now is to channel that same $18 million in credit directly to the American Samoan Government “for purposes of economic development.”

“Development” is a tricky word in this context — everybody’s doing it — and it’s hard to imagine that $18 million can buy the kind of development American Samoa needs. The Territory is still recovering from last year’s 8.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc all over the island.

We might get a better fix on the word if we were able to specify what will be entailed in the program of “economic development” to which the $18 million will be dedicated. The answer seems to be pretty straightforward: keeping StarKist in American Samoa. Last month, Eni Faleomavaega, the non-voting House Delegate from American Samoa, worked with Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana “to convert the 30A tax credit in a way that will provide a direct payment” to the American Samoan Government. The Territory’s government would, in turn, use the money “to help StarKist until we can put a more long-term solution in place.” There go those Democrats and their anti-business agenda again.

As a headline in the Samoa News put it, StarKist would get the $18 million as an inducement to stay, “in lieu of” its tax credit, even though it was operating at a loss. One reader of that paper asked its editors to “please explain to your readers what lieu means– not all our folks know the word.” Of course, to explain the word is to reveal the sleight of hand it is meant to cover up. But Samoa is in a tough spot. “Without help,” Faleomavaega said, without exaggeration, “StarKist will be forced to close its operations in American Samoa and, if this happens, the Territory’s economy, which is barely hanging by a thread, will collapse.”

The fight over the minimum wage has put Faleomavaega in a tough spot, too, and that’s probably why he is now taking a more conciliatory position than ever before toward StarKist. Just a few years ago, in May of 2007, Faleomavaega penned an angry letter to Richard Wolford, President and CEO of Del Monte, StarKist’s parent company, in which he railed against “corporate greed” and “hypocrisy,” and noted that Wolford’s own compensation amounted to “over 400 times more per year than the average cannery worker in American Samoa.”

According to my calculations, you have approximately 3,000 employees and an increase of $0.50 per hour equates to about a $3,000,000 increase per year for StarKist and Chicken of the Sea. Considering that you do not pay health care benefits to our cannery workers which in itself is un-American, and also given that after 20 years of dedicated service you only pay out $160 a month in pensions to Samoan men and women who stand on their feet and clean fish for 8 hours a day, I believe your wisest course of action is to join with me in supporting a one-time increase of $0.50 per hour.

Faleomavaega ended his letter by taking issue with Del Monte’s notion of “responsibility” – which the company defines as “an economic, legal, and moral responsibility to maximize the return it gives to its investors or shareholders” – and reminded them of other obligations: “I believe higher laws should guide our actions and that we have a moral responsibility to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

I leave it for others to decide whether securing $18 million on behalf of a multinational corporation that is probably going to pull stakes anyway amounts to following the golden rule. The real question in American Samoa is whether that $18 million transfer amounts to development, at least in any meaningful sense of the word.

I have my doubts, unless by “economic development” Faleomavaega and associates merely mean saving jobs – or making a desperate bid to save jobs — at the StarKist cannery. That would seem to be the very antithesis of sustainable development, and though it may be politically advantageous for Faleomavaega in the short term, it does little for Samoa’s long-term prospects.

Worse, the proposed arrangement will launder the StarKist payoff through the American Samoan government. Corruption, as one CNN report put it, is “endemic” in American Samoa, which receives about $250 million in federal funding every year. Governor Togiola Tulafono has been accused of bribery; so have sundry government officials. In early 2007, one year before the quake and tsunami hit, Department of Homeland Security inspectors found that millions in disaster-preparedness had been diverted to other uses – flat screen televisions, expensive leather chairs, trips to Las Vegas, and miscellaneous entertainments. In response, our government temporarily froze all federal funding to the island. (That freeze did not and could not last. In the wake of the 2009 tsunami, President Obama declared an emergency and directed federal aid to the Territory.)

There has been some speculation that corruption made the natural disaster much worse than it could have been. The Homeland Security funds squandered by government officials in American Samoa were intended to pay for an early-warning system, which included thirty towers with thirty sirens that could have been activated with the push of a button in the event of a disaster. None had been put in place when inspectors arrived in 2007; Governor Tulafono claimed there was “never a plan for a system.” So disaster struck, and nobody was able to sound the alarm.

No surprise, then, that there are no viable economic recovery plans in place should StarKist decide to pull out of American Samoa. The Territory has relied on a mix of corporate interests and federal assistance for too long, counting on help from greater powers without making any long-term plans of its own. Maybe that’s what makes this remote island territory quintessentially, and uncannily, American.