Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Union rights as an ESG issue

I've blogged a little previously about what I see as a general failure of labour issues to make it very high up the ESG agenda. As someone who has worked with and for trade unions in different ways for much of my adult life I find this frustrating, particularly as it contrasts sharply with progress on environmental issues in responsible investment. So I thought I'd go into a bit more detail.

One of the things that troubles me is the apparent tolerance some people in responsible have for poor behaviour by companies on labour rights. I very much doubt this sort of behaviour would be tolerated in respect of other ESG issues. I think it is worth restating, as obvious as it should be, that labour rights are human rights. Therefore, where unions raise concerns about companies' not respecting labour rights this should not be seen as a "difference of opinion" between employer and employee, but a potential violation of human rights. Also, unions are very often able to provide specific breaches of labour law by companies. The consequences of such breaches vary considerably between jurisdictions but the key point is that companies are breaking the law, often repeatedly.

Seen in these terms, I question why investors do not take alleged labour rights violations more seriously. Aside from the danger in being seen as tolerating abuses of human rights, I would argue that investors should see this as a serious hazard warning. If a company is breaking the rules over and over even if you don't personally like/support unions you should be concerned about whether this is indicative of a wider management attitude.

However, for some reason this message doesn't seem to get through. I doubt a company that could be shown to have repeatedly violated environmental regulations would be given the benefit of the doubt by many ESG folks, but this does happen with labour rights. To take a real life example, imagine the reaction if a company stated that it would lobby aganst certain environmental standards because it was bad for business, and if it repeatedly used lawyers to frustrate attempts to make it more environmentally responsible. I think we know that most RI people would think this was intolerable.

Yet this is exactly what happens when unions try to organise within companies. It is far more acceptable in the ESG world for a company to oppose unionisation, even when this strays into alleged breaches of the law, than it is for it to decline to adhere to voluntary environmental initiatives or targets. I have even seen an asset manager with some ESG credibility report publicly that it supports a company's right to campaign against unionisation because it thinks this is in the interests of the business.

I genuinely get it that the working lives of retail workers, or dockers, or bus drivers are to most people in the the RI world a less interesting thing to look at than climate change, particularly if those workers live in developed countries and sound a bit thick. Engaging over these issues maybe doesn't have quite the same feeling that you are contributing to something important. But actually the ability of workers to bargain for a fair share is closely linked to inequality, surely quite an important societal issue.

It's a bad news story really: the decline of trade union strength is closely correlated with increased inequality, as an IMF paper pointed out last year. The effects might be two-fold, weaker unions mean that labour is less able to bargain for a fair share, but also reduce the countervailing power that once held corporate management in check. Is it any wonder that the US, with its weak labour law and numerous anti-union companies (and union-busting firms that advise them) is so unequal? So if you are concerned by inequality you should be concerned by companies that try to prevent or reverse unionisation.

Finally, I think it's important to flag up the issue of beneficiary interest and representation. I genuinely believe that RI policies and practices should reflect beneficiary concerns where possible.
There is a lack of good info on what beneficiaries really want to see in RI policies but some of the limited info we have suggests that they put more emphasis on basic employment-related issues than the ESG community as a whole does. If this is broadly correct this may be because they see a self-interest in it. We also know that beneficiaries want to get a decent return and are worried about getting ripped off. Therefore an RI policy that was generally rooted in beneficiaries' interests might have more to say about workplace terms and conditions on the one hand, and fees and charges on the other. To state the obvious we are long way from that, although this is broadly the territory that unions seek to occupy.

I do worry a bit that the priorities expressed in responsible investment can sometimes look like the liberalism of the well off and successful. We're very good at flying around the world to conferences and signing up to global initiatives. In contrast, bus drivers complaining about shift patterns or faulty heaters can seem rather dull. If you've never done a menial job, or struggled to get on at work, you may well consider some of the complaints that union members raise to be trivial, or whiny. But these are the people whose money makes responsible investment possible. Without their pensions you and me don't have jobs. I think they have a right to expect that their voice gets a better hearing than it does currently.

1 comment:

John Gray said...

Great post Tom. Will steal.

Ironic that many UK NGOs and charities refuse to recognise trade unions and don't get this makes them under UN Charters human rights abusers.