Sweden’s pension funds drop Walmart investments; Portland suspends further investments

Citing Walmart’s systemic abuse of workers’ rights, four state-managed Swedish public pension funds became the latest in a growing number of public pension funds divesting themselves of Walmart stocks and bonds.

Prior to the divestment decision, Handels, the Swedish union of retail workers, wrote a letter requesting a review of the funds’ Walmart investments to determine whether they matched the funds’ social responsibility goals.

“It’s a welcome and wise decision,” said Lars-Anders Häggström, head of  Handels to The Local, “Our union members have expressed astonishment when they found out their pension savings were invested in Walmart. If we influenced the AP Funds’ decision today, we are of course delighted.”

Closer to home, the Portland, Oregon City Council has voted to stop investing in Walmart at least until the end of 2014. City Commissioner Steve Novick said that the city council took the action because of the retail giant’s “voluminous” record of poor corporate  behavior.

Sweden’s public pensions, known as the AP Fund, are an amalgamation of six different funds worth a total of $140 billion. Four of those funds had invested in Walmart.

The AP Fund has an Ethical Council whose mission is to ensure that  the funds invest in companies that act responsibly toward the larger community.

In its letter to the Ethical Council, Handels said that Walmart had stifled employee efforts to improve their working conditions through organizing and collective action.  Walmart’s interference, according to Handels, is a violation of the workers’ right to freedom of assembly and association established by the  United Nation’s International Labor Organization.

Walmart recently fired workers like Carlton Smith of Los Angeles and Colby Harris of Dallas for participating in legal unfair labor practices strikes and for organizing fellow workers. Smith and Harris are both members of OUR Walmart, a group of Walmart associates organizing for change on the job. Other members of OUR Walmart have also been fired or disciplined for trying to improve working conditions and for speaking out for change.

The Ethical Council had opened a dialogue with Walmart in an attempt to find common ground that would allow the funds to continue to hold investments in the company, but after extensive talks, the council reported to the funds’ managers that “Walmart continues to fall short of (the) dialogue(‘s) objectives.”

“We welcome this important decision by Sweden’s pension funds, and the work of our affiliate union, Handels, in making it happen,” said Phillip Jennings, the general secretary of UNI, a worldwide confederation of commercial worker unions. “This is yet more evidence that Walmart values its profits over the human rights of its own workforce.

“The world’s pension funds are deserting Walmart in droves, and rightly so,” added Jennings. “It is about time the company showed the sort of responsibility that should come with being the world’s biggest employer.”

In 2006, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, which at the time was worth $240 billion, divested itself of Walmart of  $400 million worth of the company’s stock. According to Stacy Mitchell, writing for the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the Norwegian decision was based on a report by its own ethical council.

After examining Walmart’s practices in North America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and China, the council concluded that  continuing to invest in Walmart would make the fund complicit “in serious, systematic or gross violations of norms” including the forcing employees to work overtime without compensation, discrimination against women,  hazardous working conditions, and “aggressive anti-union tactics.”

In June 2013, PGGM NV, which manages the public pension fund in the Netherlands, added Walmart to its exclusion list and dropped its $183 million investment in Walmart from its portfolio because the company would not address PGGM’s concerns about Walmart’s poor labor relations.

According to a PGGM press release, “The policy pursued by Walmart in the US restricts employees’ opportunities to organize themselves in trade unions. This is not only contrary to fundamental principles and rights at work (ILO), but also contrary to the codes Walmart has compiled for its own suppliers.”

In Portland, the City Council voted unanimously on October 2 to temporarily cease investing in Walmart.

Commissioner Novick, who proposed the investment ban, cited the company’s bribery of Mexican leaders, its aggressive anti-union actions, and its decision to reduce health insurance benefits for employees.

The city, however, did not divest itself of Walmart investments.  In fact In September, it purchased $20 million worth of Walmart bonds.

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